Battle of the unbeaten: Undefeated streak to add to 'special' and 'intense' BYU-Utah rivalry

BYU's Caleb Lohner hits a 3-pointer against Utah, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020 in the Marriott Center in Provo.

BYU's Caleb Lohner hits a 3-pointer against Utah, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020 in the Marriott Center in Provo. (Nate Edwards, BYU Photo)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY β€” Utah head coach Craig Smith is no stranger to BYU.

He's battled the Cougars the last three seasons on the court in Aggies blue, but has fallen short all three times. But being a part of the rivalry is something he's only experienced as a spectator.

He got a taste of it three years ago when the Beehive Classic was played at Vivint Arena and his then-Aggies team followed the BYU-Utah game.

"You could feel the electricity in that building that afternoon, and that was really cool," Smith said reflecting on the game years ago. "It was very, very intense, and I was an innocent bystander in this whole deal. So that's the only experience I've had being a Ute with that."

It's not just a big game in the state, but nationally. Saturday's matchup will be the first time both teams are 5-0 since the 1912-13 season. In that season, coach E.L. Roberts led an independent BYU team into a matchup with 10-0 Utah before the Utes claimed a 49-31 victory and the Cougars finished 7-3.

This isn't your grandfather's BYU-Utah basketball matchup. But then again, there's always something a little bit different about this rivalry series, the Holy War on the Hardwood, if such a term is still allowed.

"Just going to the football game shows you the impact, and how dedicated each fan base is," said BYU guard Te'Jon Lucas, the Milwaukee transfer who averages 10.0 points and 5.6 assists per game. "A lot of red came here, and there was a lot of blue in the stands. I'm just looking forward to it, and being out there to play in it."

Obviously, a lot has changed since that 1913 meeting β€” and even just in this offseason. BYU jumped into the Associated Press Top 25, defended its No. 18 ranking with an 81-64 win over Texas Southern, and has expectations sky-high in Provo.

Utah, meanwhile, has a new coach for the first time since 2011β€” one familiar to both the Utes and fans of in-state college basketball, based on what the aforementioned Smith did at Utah State. The former South Dakota import who led the Aggies to qualify for three consecutive NCAA Tournaments is only the second first-year coach in Utah basketball history to open his career at least 5-0, and the first since Robert Richardson led the Utes to a 17-3 record in 1909-10.

Wins over returning NCAA Tournament team Abilene Christian, Boston College and Tulsa have BYU coach Mark Pope continuing his respect for the former Aggie lead man who went winless in three years (at three different sites) against the Cougars during his time in Logan.

"I've got a ton of respect for him," Pope said of Smith, two of the most spirited and charismatic coaches in college basketball. "I think he's a great coach; he's obviously had a great career, and he makes his guys better. He's a tough competitor, whether it's on the court or on the streets of California.

"Utah is really lucky to have him, because he'll do a great job up there."

After opening the season with four returning NCAA Tournament teams in their first five games, the Cougars next embark on a run that will see them play four in-state opponents over a span of six. That includes road trips to Utah Valley and Weber State around a home date with Utah State, the only home game between Saturday and Dec. 29 as BYU vacates the Marriott Center for a series of holiday-related events on campus.

The Cougars won't go far, save for road trips to Missouri State on Dec. 4 and a neutral-site tip with Creighton in South Dakota on Dec. 11. But they will be tested.

"I may have overestimated how much I wanted to learn about my team early in the season," Pope said with half an aura of cheekiness and half in a more somber tone. "We're going straight from four NCAA Tournament teams to something like a bunch of in-state games in a row. That might not be smart, but we've got a team that wants to go fight."

And for the Utes, it's the beginning of a two-game stretch against Top 25 opponents β€” first BYU and then a midweek conference game against USC on the road. It's an instant jump in competition for a program that was forced to put together a schedule later than Smith wanted due to only one game under contract when Smith took over at Utah.

Conference play will always be of most importance to the Utes, but a test against an in-state opponent that is also the team's rival? It's why you play the game.

"I don't think there's any doubt about it, the whole rivalry week thing and all that, some people try to hide from that β€” like, why would you? Everybody knows, that's what it is β€” you embrace that and you're about that, and there's definitely a lot of juice. But our guys have had juice β€” it's been very far and few between when we've had to really ride our guys about more energy and more toughness.

"Our guys have really been about that, but you can certainly feel that opponent that's coming up."

The game will bring the intensity and passion, even if a majority of the players on Utah's roster have no previous experience in the rivalry. But the game is "special" and the intensity needs no introduction.

"I think it's just the battle between two great teams, two great schools," Utah guard Jaxon Brenchley said. "Every game has been hard fought, so I'm excited to see what happens Saturday β€” should be a good one."

It's a game worthy of the praise.

"It's gonna be everything you want from an in-state game," Pope said. "Craig's a great coach, they have a great team, a really veteran team and this is a big game. They've started out the season great.

"There's a proud tradition there. It's going to be awesome. These in-state games are going to be really special."

How to watch, stream and listen to the game

No. 18 BYU (5-0) at Utah (5-0)

Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City, UT

Tipoff: 7:30 p.m. MT

TV: Pac-12 Networks (Roxy Bernstein, Don MacLean)

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