PROVO — Even though the game is being played in December, and even though BYU is a heavy favorite over Utah, the Cougars are expecting an emotional battle when the arch-rivals collide today at the Huntsman Center.
"We know we'll get their best effort. They're going to come out and play hard," said forward Noah Hartsock. "It's BYU and Utah. We've been playing for so long. It's the first time not being in a conference, so it's a little different feel. But it's still going to be a tense game."
"This is a rivalry game and it's an emotional thing. It feels pretty similar (to past seasons)," said coach Dave Rose. "When you get involved and you're watching film and trying to prepare your guys, the feeling is pretty similar."
Both programs are just weeks away from tipping off play in new conferences, as BYU (7-2) is a member of the West Coast Conference and the Utes (1-7) are part of the Pac-12. But, unlike past seasons, there aren't any league implications attached to this showdown today (noon, MT, Fox Sports Net).
"It's different," Cougar senior Charles Abouo said of playing the Utes at this time of year. "We usually have to wait until conference play. It's always fun to play Utah. They're a storied program and it's a good rivalry game. Both sides enjoy it."
Utah is coming off a 31-point setback at home to Cal-State Fullerton, its worst home loss ever. The Utes' lone victory of the season, by a three-point margin, came at the expense of San Diego Christian College.
"With a lot of the rivalries, it doesn't matter what records you have," Abouo said. "It's really not about the numbers. Teams find a way to make it competitive when they play a big in-state rival. They have a lot of talent on their team and we expect a good game."
Utah will receive a boost from the return of senior guard Josh "Jiggy" Watkins, who was suspended for the Cal-State Fullerton game for "conduct detrimental to the team." Watkins was reinstated on Thursday. He averages a team-high 17.7 points and 4.8 assists per game.
"They've got shooters, post guys and a point guard," Rose said of the Utes. "They have the makings of a really good team in a position right now that's trying to find themselves with a lot of new players. It will be our job to do the best we can to try to not let one or all of those players have career days."
Today's game will be a homecoming of sorts for a couple of Cougars who transferred to BYU after redshirting at Utah — forward Josh Sharp and point guard Craig Cusick.
"Like any player that has an old school when they go back to play them, it gives added energy from the beginning," said Cusick, who redshirted at Utah in 2006-07. "I had a great opportunity and a great time there (at Utah). But I'm here now and I really enjoy it here. I'm really looking forward to (Saturday's) game, just being back at the old gym where I used to play. Playing a few old buddies gives you extra emotion and extra meaning to the game. ... In a rivalry game, anything can happen, so we're going up there with the expectations that it's going to be a hard-fought game and I'm sure they're going to giving a great effort."
Only one player still remains in Utah's program since Cusick was there — center David Foster, who is sidelined with a foot injury. "He was my roommate at the U.," Cusick said of Foster. "I know a few coaches up there. There will be some familiar faces."
It's likely that Sharp, who redshirted at Utah in 2008-09 before transferring to BYU last summer, won't play today. He suffered an ankle injury in the Weber State game and is questionable for today's game, according to Rose.
The Cougars are fresh off of a dominating 94-66 rout over another in-state foe, Weber State, last Wednesday. Rose said it may have been his team's best performance this season.
"The danger of this game (against Utah) to me is that it's right behind another really emotional game (Weber State)," Rose said. "We need to get ourselves at the same level we were emotionally the other night, prepared to play a hard-fought, competitive game."
Last year's game at the Huntsman Center was memorable as former Cougar Jimmer Fredette scored 32 points in the first half — capped by a half-court shot at the buzzer — and finished with 47 points. That performance essentially launched Jimmermania onto the national scene in a game that BYU won, 104-79.
"Honestly, I just remember Jimmer's night," Abouo said. "It was a great win for us. Our team really played well. But obviously that was a special night. I remember all the hype on TV afterwards."
NOTES: Forward Chris Collinsworth is scheduled to undergo knee surgery on Tuesday, Rose said. … The Cougars have won five in a row over the Utes and four of the last five at the Huntsman Center. … BYU leads the all-time series, 127-125, with a 50-73 record in Salt Lake City.
BYU (7-2) at Utah (1-7)
TV: Fox Sports Regional
Radio: 700 AM, 1160 AM, 102.7 FM