PROVO — It’s become cliche — a right of passage, for many — in the 258 previous meetings between the BYU and Utah basketball programs, whether in Provo or Salt Lake City.
Students begin lining up for tickets and the best seats several days in advance, pitching tents and finding ways to pass the time beginning Tuesday, Wednesday or (occasionally) Thursday for a game that tips off Saturday evening.
That hadn’t changed by Tuesday afternoon, when a group of dedicated BYU fans began reserving spots in line for the Cougars’ Saturday night game against the rival Utes for the first home game in the series since 2014.
But the difference in the size of the crowd? That was noticeable Friday evening, just over 24 hours from the 9 p.m. tip.
"Our students are excited and our fans are excited," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "But I can tell you this: I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve watched the students get excited about games. They’ve been camping out since Tuesday — but it’s a smaller group. We haven’t gotten across the (Marriott Center) bridge yet, or around the building, or down the tunnel like we did against Gonzaga.
"Things are changing; it’s a little bit different."
For the players on the court, things haven’t changed as much. It’s still BYU and Utah, said guard Zac Seljaas, one of just three players from both sides who have experienced a game against their rival. It’s the same for the fans, too, though last year’s cancellation of the annual series by Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak will likely be felt when students begin entering the building around 7 p.m.
But at the end of the day, the players know what the game means — bragging rights and a whole lot of them.
"It’s kind of fun and kind of weird that we are the only ones that have played against them," said Seljaas, who prepped at Bountiful High. "But it’s always a fun atmosphere, a fun game across town. I grew up right there, near Salt Lake City, and there is a divide. People really hate each other."
The game is still important, especially for fans, players and alumni from the state of Utah.
Five Utes hail from the state of Utah, growing up either angling for a scholarship to the U., or turning there after BYU didn’t come calling. Seljaas, who averages 7.5 points per game, is one of five local players on the Cougars’ squad — but only he, Lone Peak’s TJ Haws and Bingham’s Yoeli Childs will play.
Dalton Nixon (Orem) and Ryan Andrus (American Fork) won’t return from injury in time for Saturday night’s tipoff, according to Rose. Junior forward Braiden Shaw is closer to returning, but also won’t play against the Utes.
The Cougars have played three in-state opponents in the past four games, with road games at Utah Valley and Utah State in Orem and Logan, respectively, as well as last week’s 74-68 win over Weber State in the inaugural Beehive Classic in Salt Lake City.
Saturday is much bigger. But the players also have to keep it in perspective, team captain Luke Worthington said.
"I think it’s a lot bigger for the fans," said Worthington, who averages 5.0 points and 3.2 rebounds in 13.9 minutes for BYU. "A lot of people like to read into it. In all honesty, it’s a basketball game for us."
The diminished hype in the game has called for some to call for a cessation of the annual scheduling. Krystkowiak was asked if he thinks the Utes and Cougars should face off annually earlier in the week.
"No, I don’t think so," he said bluntly. "That’s my personal opinion — no."
Rose understands the argument, that five of the six in-state college basketball teams are in different conferences, and therefore aren’t required to play each other.
But he believes the game should go on — even if the hype isn’t the same as when BYU and Utah tussled in the old Western Athletic or Mountain West conferences.
"We aren’t demanded to play each other, and hopefully the coaches and administrators can get along so that we keep playing this for the fans," Rose said. "I think the players really enjoy it. I don’t think the coaches enjoy it that much, but I do think the players and the fans really enjoy it."
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