Opposite directions

When BYU went into Utah's Huntsman Center in 2007 and won for the first time in 13 years, Utah had a redshirting freshman sitting with the team. He's been around the rivalry for years, yet Saturday will be the first time he will actually play in it. Now, however, Craig Cusick will be suited up in blue instead of red when BYU clashes with a struggling Ute program in a new era of the rivalry.

It's hard to deny that the BYU-Utah rivalry in basketball has somewhat lost its luster, and that would be the case even if the two teams weren't now in different conferences and only playing each other once a year instead of the normal two times (or three times, assuming they met in the conference tournament).

The Utes have frankly been woeful lately. Despite a fantastic run starting in the 1990s when they dominated BYU and were a national contender, even making it to the national title game in 1998, they have now only been to the NCAA Tournament once in the past six seasons and have only beaten BYU once in the past 10 tries. They are 1-7 this season, have yet to beat a Division I team, and haven't really been competitive in their losses.

Their downward trend, oddly enough, began when Dave Rose started elevating BYU's program. Under Rose, the Cougars have been to the tournament five years in a row (advancing twice, including to the Sweet 16 last season), achieved high national rankings, set school records for wins, won four conference titles (one of which was shared with Utah, as well as New Mexico), and had a national player of the year.

It's a startling contrast from when Utah was having unprecedented success and BYU, at its low point, had a 1-25 season in 1996-97.

Two opposite rivals are going in opposite directions success-wise, all while now being in opposite conferences. Meanwhile, junior guard Craig Cusick has made the switch from opposite to the other.

Given BYU's current upper hand in this one-sided rivalry, he must be glad he is now a Cougar instead of a Ute. He redshirted at Utah during the 2006-07 season (Ray Giacoletti's last as head coach) before serving a mission.

Following his mission, the Orem native spent a few years as a member of BYU's practice squad, and finally earned a spot on the Cougar roster this season.

He said he has no animosity towards the University of Utah.

"I had a great experience and I think it set me off right in my career and I felt like everything fell into place how it's supposed to, and I had a good experience up there, so no bitterness."

Cusick has already been back to the Huntsman Center since his Ute days. He got to travel with the team last year when Jimmer Fredette and company put on a show there, winning 104-79 behind Fredette's 47 points.

This year, in Larry Krystkowiak's first year at the Ute helm following Jim Boylen's firing, the rivalry game is expected to be even less competitive.

But, the Cougars are throwing out all the old rivalry clichés.

"We're really pumped and really excited to go up there and play regardless of the record of us or them, so we're just excited to play," Cusick said. He remembers when that favored BYU team went into Salt Lake City in 2007 and got a good battle from his teammates for a while before pulling away.

Senior Charles Abouo echoed Cusick's sentiment.

"It's really not about the numbers. Teams find a way to always make it competitive when they play a big in-state rival," he said, adding he expects the rivalry to stay the same despite its recent changes.

Meanwhile, Coach Rose said he is concerned about playing Utah days after playing another emotional in-state foe in Weber State.

"[Utah's] got a really good point guard [Josh ‘Jiggy' Watkins] who can really score the ball, one of the best scorers in the Pac-12," Rose said. "They've got a post guy [Jason Washburn] who can pass and score inside, and then they've got a really good shooter on the wing in [Chris] Hines. And so when you prepare your team, those are kind of the three things you're looking for with any team – have they got shooters, have they got post guys, have they got a point guard – and they've got the makings of a really good team in a position right now that's trying to find themselves with a lot of new players."

"I think they have a lot of athletic guys on their team and really good talent, and I think it's just gonna take them a little time, and once they come together they're going to be great," said Cusick.

Abouo said that last year's game in Salt Lake City felt like a neutral-site game with how many BYU fans were there. BYU fans will likely make up an even higher percentage of the crowd on Saturday.

It will be a warmer reception on the road than Cusick got in 2007 when he traveled with the Utes to Provo. He wasn't suited up, but was nevertheless the enemy then as he sat with the Utah bench.

"Coming out of high school, you don't quite understand the emotion and the focus that you got to have going into these games," he said.

"I saw lots of my friends in the BYU crowd, and back then I was like, ‘Aw, what are they doing?' But now I understand. I'm where I want to be here right now."

Playing each other in December instead of later in the year is new, and Utah may be quite down (a recent article on ESPN's website proclaimed the Utes to be the worst of all the teams in the six power conferences), but the Cougars aren't downplaying the rivalry.

"I think you just get excited to play," Rose said about playing Utah this early on. "This is a rivalry game, and it's an emotional thing, so it feels pretty similar."

"It's always fun to play Utah," said Abouo. "They're a storied program, and it's a good rivalry game that both sides enjoy."

"It's always hard-fought," said Cusick. "There's always going to be that emotion there, because we're such close rivals."


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