Wouldn't you know it would come to this? Utah and BYU, the big instate rivals and even bigger underdogs, avoid each other for a month and a half while taking the rest of the Western Athletic Conference by surprise until finally they agree to meet and settle this thing man-to-man. And so they will tonight, when they meet in a televised showdown in the Huntsman Center with no less than a championship on the line.
For once, Round 1 of this bi-annual rivalry will have something more than mere bragging rights riding on the outcome. Tonight's game will be either the end or the beginning of a two-team race to the wire.If the Utes win, they will clinch the WAC championship; if the Cougars win, then the championship might not be decided until a late-night rematch in Provo in the season-finale.
It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. BYU, the defending WAC co-champion, and Utah were both picked to finish in the middle of the WAC pack - fifth and sixth, respectively, to be precise. But here it is mid-February and Utah and BYU are clearly 1-2 in the league race. No one else is even close.
A Big Game? "It is for us," says BYU coach Roger Reid.
The numbers: Utah is 12-1 in WAC play (23-2 overall), BYU 10-3 (16-10) and making a strong stretch run. The Cougars have won five consecutive games, including road victories over Texas-El Paso and New Mexico, the site of Utah's lone league loss. The Cougars' only league losses have come against Wyoming (twice) and Hawaii - teams Utah handled twice.
"It's up to us," said Utah forward Josh Grant. "We have control of our destiny. We don't have to rely on another team beating someone."
Grant was saying this while standing in the jubiliant Ute locker room following Thursday night's intense and emotional win over Wyoming, but the mood of the team changed considerably and quickly. Less than two hours after the game, Paul Afeaki, their reserve center, was shot by a man in a car. The bullet entered and exited Afeaki's left shoulder. He was treated and released from the hospital later that night, but it was a close call.
"If it would have been two inches lower, it would have been a different story," said Police Lt. Mark Zelig.
Asked about the state of his team at a press conference Friday morning, Utah coach Rick Majerus snapped, "I don't worry about the team. It's irrelevant. What does it matter? I'm just happy Paul's alive."
According to Majerus, Afeaki will be under guard and inaccessible for a few days. His assailant still has not been apprehended. Majerus forbade his players from talking to the media about the incident.
Afeaki has been a valuable reserve for the Utes this season. He has averaged seven points, four rebounds and 14 minutes per game, and blocked a total of 21 shots. "In my mind he's done for the season," said Majerus.
Afeaki probably will be replaced by Larry Cain, who has played just 44 minutes all season.
Walter Watts, Utah's 6-foot-8 starting center, will need all the help he can get against Shawn Bradley, BYU's 7-foot-6 freshman center. Certainly, he'll need to be spelled occasionally, which means Cain and possibly walk-on Sean Mooney will be called into the game.
The Utes know what they're up against. When Majerus discusses Bradley, he gushes. "BYU has the greatest player ever to come down the pipe," he said earlier this season. "I recurited Sampson, I coached Lucas and Sikma. He's better than Sikma right now . . . No one will ever be better than Bradley. He will be the best there's ever been in the Western Athletic Conference and the best there ever will be. He's that good. He's so coordinated. He has magnificent touch. He's 7-6! He's the Kareem of his era."
The key figure for the Utes as always will be Grant, who produced an amazing line against Wyoming: 24 points, 5 rebounds, 5 steals, 3 blocks, 2 assists. Grant is easily the Utes' top scorer. Sporting a 17-point average, he is the only player on the team averaging double scoring figures. But help might be on the way. Phil Dixon, the Utes' long-distance operator, scored 20 points against Wyoming. Until recently, Dixon has been limited to about 14 minutes of play per game because of a lingering ankle injury (the result of falling through a window last winter), but on Saturday he played 24 minutes.
Majerus says Dixon is ready for such duty now. "We're not practicing as much," said the coach. "This is our last double (game) weekend. The ankle hasn't affected him as much. He's gotten stronger."
Dixon was more concerned about a sprained shooting wrist than the bad ankle on Thursday. "I'm getting stronger and I can play longer," he said.
While most everyone is surprised by the emergence of the Utes this season, Reid is not one of them. "I said from the very beginning, and believed it with all my heart, that Utah would be a contender," he says. "They had all those guys back - Grant, Soto, Dixon and Watts - plus the Prop 48 players. They beat us twice last year and we won it (the championship). I didn't know they'd be this good, but as far as being shocked, noooo."
Looking ahead to tonight's contest, Reid said, "If we're going to be successful, we've got to play a flawless game, especially at their place."