BYU Limps Into Rivalry Game

The Cougars look to stop the bleeding after a series of tough defeats, but to do so, they'll have to come out victorious against an improving Utah team. The Utes, through their first 15 games, are 10-5. By comparison, they were 5-10 at the same point last season.

What's worse, the Cougars will have to play in an arena that has historically been harsh to BYU. Prior to last year, BYU hadn't even won at the Huntsman Center since 1994.

Of course, playing anywhere on the road lately has been bad for BYU. The Cougars have lost their last three road games. The first of those losses, at Boise State, was a close game, but BYU was unable to hit what would have been a game-tying three-pointer at the final buzzer.

However, the following road losses at Wake Forest and UNLV were ugly affairs and demonstrated a clear decline in BYU's quality of play.

"We just came out flat, I think, in both games," Ben Murdock said of the Wake Forest and UNLV games. "[We] haven't shot the ball real well, and I think that's kind of taking a toll on us. Even if we're not making shots, we still [have to] go out there and compete and do what we do and be physical with the other teams and not let them get into us."

Coach Rose said different problems plagued the team during those three losses: the team didn't play together during the second half of the Boise State game, didn't defend well at Wake Forest, and had a terrible time scoring at UNLV.

In addition, despite the fast start to the season, Rose said that the team is still trying to find itself in regards to depth and the younger players that are having to contribute a lot of minutes. He brought up the loss of Keena Young, a dominant inside scorer, and the fact that they have replaced him with another perimeter scorer in Jonathan Tavernari. The team has to find other ways to win when some things - such as perimeter scoring - aren't going well.

While Rose brought up different problems that the team had in each of those losses, he did say that they shared an underlying theme.

"I think that what we really need is we need to see more consistency from more players," said Rose.

Sometimes teams can win, Rose said, with only one or two guys carrying the load, but this team needs a larger group of players to play well at the same time. The players rely on each other and are part of a real team.

"As your players become more consistent, then everybody becomes a lot more confident," said Rose.

Of course, nothing can be done to salvage the past three road games; they're in the past. What the players can do, however, is not let the recent struggles affect them negatively.

The team, Rose said, is a very competitive group, and that after a team gets outplayed, it really wants to get back out on the floor and compete again. Rose has made sure that the team doesn't mope around after a tough defeat, but that it instead puts everything into perspective.

"I think what's important is that they understand that what happened the other night [at UNLV] isn't unique to them and this team only," said Rose. "It happens a lot to a lot of really good teams, and we need to put it behind [us], but to [also] learn from it and have an opportunity to get out and compete again."

Murdock echoed Rose's sentiments.

"A game like that, you [have] to forget about it," Murdock said. "You can't nitpick at anything with a game like that ‘cause we didn't play good all-around, and so [we have to] just forget about it and to move on and to get better."

Moving on and getting better are certainly important now with conference play underway, and Murdock understands how important each game is and how the team must play with a sense of urgency.

"You [have] to come ready to play ‘cause there's never a good time for a bad time in conference play," Murdock said.

During the past two seasons, the Cougars have struggled early on with road games but have progressed as the season goes along. In the 2005-06 regular season, BYU lost five of its first six away games, but won four of its last five away games (it should be noted that the one loss in those later road games was at Utah). In the 2006-07 regular season, BYU lost six of its first seven games away from the Marriott Center, but won five of its last six road games. One of those road victories was at Air Force, which at the time was tied with BYU for the longest home-winning streak in the country. Not only had the Falcons won 30 straight homes games, but they had also won 54 of their past 55 games at Clune Arena.

It seems as though Rose's teams have typically improved at getting ready to play road games as the season wears on, which bodes well for the Cougars.

Being ready to play will definitely be crucial on Saturday when the Cougars play up in Salt Lake City. Murdock certainly expects Utah to be ready to play; the Utes, like BYU, are coming off of a loss, and in addition they will be looking for payback after BYU won at the Huntsman Center last year for the first time in years.

That game, Murdock said, was pretty intense, though that intensity wasn't just coming from the rival team; whenever the Cougars play at Utah, they can count on a hostile crowd. Murdock recalled there being some pretty good signs and attacks that the Crimson crowd used to heckle to the loyal, strong and true that wore the white and blue.

Coach Rose also couldn't help but notice some of the signs used to mock the valiant road team.

"I try not to look at any of them, but every once in a while you see one and [say], ‘My goodness!'" Rose said, adding that some of those students have a future career in sign-making thanks to their creativity.

And while all of the creative chants, signs, shirts and other things that that go along with rivalry games are what makes these games unique for the fans, the players themselves don't get too much into that.

"You don't think about really anything during the game other than just playing and trying to win and do all the little things," said Murdock.

As mentioned earlier, the Utes, coming off of two consecutive losing seasons, have shown signs of improvement.

"I think that … they seem to play a lot more together as a group defensively," said Rose. "Offensively, they really seem to share the ball well and get some real consistent play off the bench."

Specifically playing well off the bench is Johnnie Bryant, who is averaging 12.9 points per game this season thus far. That makes him Utah's second-leading scorer. Rose said Bryant has been so consistent all year that the Cougars have to prepare for him as though he were a starter.

Of course, the key factor in Utah's improvement is new head coach Jim Boylen. Rose said he thinks Boylen is doing a great job and that Utah will be a force in the league.

Also complimentary of Boylen and the Utes is Murdock, who said the Utes seem to have a different mental edge this year, and that Boylen seems to have instilled more toughness in them.

During the past several seasons, one part of the rivalry has been the matchup between two big men: BYU's Trent Plaisted and Utah's Luke Nevill. Rose said they are similar players, not in how they play, but in how they affect their teams. Rose said that a lot more is made out of the matchup between the two by the fans and media than by the teams themselves, but did say that having the two big men is good for local basketball fans.

"I think that the people in this part of the country are pretty lucky to have two pretty good big men they can watch play all winter long," said Rose.

Meanwhile, though Coach Rose takes the predictable every-game-is-business-as-usual approach, he nevertheless acknowledged that this weekend's rivalry game, the 245th in the series, is an important one, as the conference race is currently wide open, and one of these two teams will exit the game at 2-1 in conference, while the other team will be 1-2.

Rose said his team has been in plenty of tough, aggressive, hostile environments before, and that in those types of surroundings, the team relies on experience. The Cougars will have to do just that to prevail among their rivals Saturday.

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