Provo • Jimmer Fredette was more amused than annoyed back in January 2011 when UNLV guard Tre’Von Willis said that BYU’s star guard was just an average player and would be shut down at the Thomas & Mack Center in what was then the Mountain West Conference opener.
“He’s got all of those [All-America] accolades, but he’s gotta come in and prove it,” Willis said.
Prove it, he did.
Fredette erupted for 39 points, including seven 3-pointers, as BYU beat UNLV (89-77) in Las Vegas for the first time in eight tries, a stretch that included three Mountain West tournament losses on the Rebels’ home floor. Fredette scored 29 points on Willis and his teammates a month later in a 78-64 rout of the Rebels in Provo, but that would turn out to be the final meeting between the conference foes.
The Cougars joined the West Coast Conference before the 2011-12 season, and UNLV administrators, feeling spurned like a lot of other officials at MWC schools, saw no need to continue playing BYU.
Streaking BYU (8-4) will meet struggling UNLV (4-4) at T-Mobile Arena, a few miles away from the Rebels’ home court, at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the Coaches vs. Cancer Neon Hoops Showcase. It’s obviously not a rivalry anymore — BYU players and fans never really called it that, while UNLV’s players and fans desperately clung to that notion for years — but event organizers are hoping it might spark some of those bitter feelings from classic encounters in the past.
UNLV will return the “neutral site” game by playing BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City next December.
“I have grown up watching a lot of BYU-UNLV games,” said BYU guard TJ Haws, who scored a career-high 30 points in the Cougars’ 85-66 win over Portland State on Wednesday. “I know they have been big games, but our team has got to focus on us and our energy and I think if we do that we are going to have a good chance of winning on Saturday.”
The Cougars have won three straight, all by 15 or more points, while the Rebels have dropped their last three. Because of that slump and how far the UNLV program has fallen in the past few years, Las Vegas Review-Journal sports writer Mark Anderson says there’s not much of a buzz surrounding the first meeting in nearly eight years.
“Even having BYU in town won’t be enough to create much of a crowd at T-Mobile Arena,” Anderson said. “I hear it won’t be much of a crowd.”
Saint Mary’s and LSU will meet in the second game.
Anderson said the bitter feelings UNLV administrators had when BYU left have subsided, evidenced by their willingness to schedule a home-and-home football series and these basketball games.
“UNLV has moved on,” Anderson said. “As for UNLV fans, they will always cheer against BYU, but that goes mostly back to when the schools were Mountain West rivals rather than [BYU’s] departure from the conference.”
Of course, BYU has a lot of fans and alumni in the Las Vegas area — which fueled the disdain for the Cougars among locals in the 2000s and early 2010s — and coach Dave Rose expects them to show up in force like they do when BYU plays WCC tournament games at Orleans Arena across town.
“I think we will have a good crowd of Cougar fans there. It is a new arena — since it opened a couple years ago, I always tried to figure out how we could get a game in there,” Rose said.
Rose, now in his 14th year as BYU’s coach, said his team hasn’t purposefully avoided playing UNLV and other MWC teams since it left the league. The Cougars will start a new series with San Diego State next week and have annually played Utah State, which joined the MWC a few years after BYU departed. They will host Nevada next season, after having played in Reno last month.
“I don’t think [MWC teams] have really wanted to come to the Marriott Center,” Rose said. “I guess I shouldn’t say that, but I think that’s kind of what [the reason is]. But now after some of the things that have happened as far as the [NCAA] tournament invitations go, everybody at this level, and that level — San Diego State, UNLV, Nevada — those guys are a little more eager to get a series with a top 50 team, a top 75 team.”
Rose said UNLV is better than its record indicates, noting that it almost knocked off Illinois last Saturday and has had a week to prepare for the Cougars.
BYU vs. UNLV
At T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas
Tipoff • Saturday, 6:30 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN3 (online only)
Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 8-4, UNLV 4-4
Series history • UNLV leads 18-16
Last meeting • BYU 78, UNLV 64 (Feb. 5, 2011)
About the Rebels • They fell 77-74 at Illinois on Dec. 8, their only game away from the Thomas & Mack Center to date. … Their other loses were to Loyola Marymount (61-50), Valparaiso (72-64) and Cincinnati (65-61). … Joel Ntambwe had 18 points and seven rebounds in the loss at Illinois. Forward Juiston Shakur is questionable because of an injured left knee, the Las Vegas Review Journal reported Thursday. Shakur is averaging 10.8 points and 8.8 rebounds. … G Kris Clyburn leads them in scoring with an 11.3 average.
About the Cougars • Junior guard TJ Haws is playing some of the best basketball of his career, having made 12 of 20 3-point attempts over the last three games. He scored a career-high 30 points in Wednesday’s 85-66 win over Portland State. … They will host UNLV next year at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City. … G Connor Harding made his second straight start against the Vikings and scored 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting and added a career-high three assists.