PROVO — Over the past month, the BYU men’s basketball team has put in as many as 3,000 miles per trip in road games at New Mexico, Princeton (New Jersey) and Brooklyn, N.Y.
The trip distance for the Cougars’ next road game Wednesday at 7 p.m. is about five miles — or, as Cougars coach Dave Rose calls it, “a 10-minute bus ride — if you hit the lights right.”
BYU (4-2) will play its first-ever game at Utah Valley on Wednesday, and the 14th-year Division I program has already sold out the 8,500-seat venue for the historic occasion. The Wolverines (4-2) have had to open special sections to accommodate ticket demand, and those special tickets sold out in 90 minutes, according to head coach Mark Pope.
Wednesday night’s game will be broadcast on BYUtv and KSL Newsradio, with a live stream on ESPN3. Fans are encouraged to arrive early, with doors opening at 5:30 p.m.
"It’s great for the community, and Pope has got a really competitive team this year that has a chance to really make some noise in conference play," said Rose, who likened it to his college experience at Houston when they traveled to play Rice. "I’m excited for the valley and for the game."
The two campuses are so close, most of the students have lived with roommates that go to either school. A walk through any sporting goods store in the Provo-Orem area will reveal merchandise for both teams. Fans of both schools can run into each other at church, the park or the gym every morning.
The programs are no different — three of the Wolverines’ top nine players in minutes per game transferred from BYU — and the two teams regularly play each other every summer in pickup games spread across practice facilities, park courts and church gyms.
"I think it’s a lot of fun, with two schools that are right next to each other with solid programs," said BYU guard TJ Haws, who prepped at nearby Lone Peak High School. "Hopefully there are a lot of people there."
More than on the court, the players know each other on a personal level, too. Utah Valley guard Jake Toolson was a roommate with current Cougar post Luke Worthington as a freshman at BYU, before the Wolverine sharpshooter transferred to Orem and the Cougar big man served a two-year mission for the LDS Church in Chile.
Toolson admitted there won’t be any "good times" recalled in the buildup to Wednesday night’s game — both teams want to win. The Cougars hold a 2-1 lead in the all-time series, but the Wolverines are coming off a 114-101 win one year ago in Provo.
The intimacy is there.
"I’ve played against all the dudes down there. This isn’t as new," Worthington said. "But I’m excited to go up against (Toolson in a game). He’s a good player, and we’ll do our best as a team to defend. The biggest thing we need to do is play our game. We know there will be a lot of emotions involved, but we are just going to play our game."
The Cougars are accustomed to being the big game on a lot of program schedules.
But Wednesday night should be different, with a big-game road atmosphere a short 14-minute drive (with traffic common to University Parkway in November) from campus.
“That’s what you sign up for when you agree to coach at BYU,” Rose said. “There aren’t very many people that are neutral about BYU, and that makes it exciting and unique. I think as the players experience it, it’s something they really enjoy.”
Make no mistake, Wednesday’s midweek matchup at the county-owned UCCU Center in Orem is a big game.
With two fan bases working, playing, living and mixing in day-to-day life, it’s easy to see why the matchup excites so many in BYU’s first-ever visit to the UCCU Center.
“People are really excited — this is something the school has never seen before,” said Toolson, the BYU transfer who averages 12.2 points per game with the Wolverines. “We are going to sell that place out, it’s going to be electric, and it’s a really big-time game for this university. It’s not just me or Isaac (Neilson) or guys who have been at BYU — there are a lot of people who grew up cheering for them, and they are pulling for us for a lot of reasons.”
It’s not just the intra-county rivalry — or “crosstown clash” as some advertisers are billing it, either. College sports teams should play other teams in their state, their region and their coverage area often.
That’s how rivalries are formed, and it’s part of the very fabric of sport, Pope argued.
“In-state games are the one lone vestige remaining in sports where you get to try to beat someone just because you want to beat them,” the second-year head coach said. “You know you will get to brag about it for the next year if you win, and if you lose, you know you have to live with shade thrown on you for the next year. In the purest sense, this is the most fun part of sports. BYU’s been great with us … and I think we should approach athletics wanting to beat everybody around here.”
Beehive road trip
Wednesday’s game is the first of four in-state opponents BYU will face, with three of them being on the road.
After visiting Orem for the first time, the Cougars will travel to Logan for a 7 p.m. tipoff Saturday against Utah State. A midweek home matchup with Illinois State breaks up the in-state battles, then the Cougars will face Weber State in the Beehive Classic on Saturday, Dec. 9, at 8 p.m. at Vivint Arena.
They’ll then close out the "Tour of Utah" against rival Utah at 9 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16. BYU is the only team in the state that will play four of the five Division I teams from Utah (the Cougars also played Division II Westminster in a preseason exhibition).
“The fans in the state really, really enjoy these games,” Rose said. “I’m going to say that I enjoy these games simply because we don’t have to fly 3,000 miles to play.
“The travel will be easier, but that’s about it. Everything else will be harder.”
While Wednesday’s game may be the first-ever trip to the arena formerly known as the David O. McKay Events Center for BYU, it won’t be Rose’s first experience playing in the sold-out building.
Rose coached at Dixie State from 1987-1997 prior to joining the staff at BYU. In that time, the then-Rebels were Scenic West rivals with what was known as Utah Valley State College.
“There were 8,500 people in there,” Rose said. “It will be a great atmosphere and it’ll be fun for both sides.”
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