Provo • BYU coach Jeff Judkins predicted a special season for his team if a few key questions were answered.
So far, so good.
The Cougars (9-0) are off to the best start in school history entering Saturday's rivalry showdown with Utah (4-4) at the Marriott Center (2 p.m., BYUtv), and they look like they might have what it takes to push perennial power Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference regular-season title. BYU was picked fourth in the conference's preseason poll.
"A lot of people didn't realize we would be this good," Judkins said. "A lot of our kids have improved, and [guard] Lexi Eaton coming back from her ACL [injury] and playing the way she has been playing has helped a lot."
Then there has been the play of 6-foot-7 senior center Jennifer Hamson. She didn't play volleyball this past season as she has done the three previous years so she could concentrate on basketball.
"That has made a big difference," Judkins said.
The preseason all-conference pick is averaging a double-double 19.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game and 4.3 blocked shots per game. Hamson spurred the Cougars' 90-85 come-from-behind win over Weber State in Ogden last Tuesday with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 9 blocked shots.
The Cougars believe it should have been a triple-double; their own stat-keepers had Hamson with four or five more blocks.
"Her game is so much better on the defensive end," Judkins said. "She blocks shots, she's a great rebounder and she anticipates so well. She has been a big plus for us."
Eaton, a two-time Tribune Utah Female Athlete of the Year from Springville High, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the eighth game of the season last year. She has returned as strong as anyone could have imagined and is averaging 16.6 points per game. Kim Beeston (11.6 ppg) gives the Cougars three double-digit scorers.
"We're playing together, and we have some pretty good balance," Judkins said. "We're playing the point-guard position by committee, and they've done well, too."
No matter their records, the Utah-BYU women's game almost always is competitive, and Judkins expects another down-to-the-wire contest with the Utes on Saturday.
Judkins said Utah senior Michelle Plouffe is one of the best players in the country and has given BYU fits the past three seasons. Like Hamson, Plouffe is averaging a double-double 19.0 points and 11.3 rebounds and was a big reason why the Utes made it to the finals of the WNIT last spring. Utah's Emily Potter and Danielle Rodriguez also present matchup problems for the Cougars.
"This game is always important to both teams, no matter what conferences we are in," Judkins said. "For our team, I know we look forward to it. It is a great rivalry, and Utah is always very, very good. We're 9-0, but that doesn't really make a difference in this kind of game, not one bit."
Utah at BYU
O Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • BYUtv