Red All Over: Does the Utah-BYU hoops rivalry still matter?

(Michael Mangum | Special to The Tribune) Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) dives out of bounds trying to save the ball in front of Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) and Brigham Young Cougars forward Dalton Nixon (33) during their game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.

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Utah-BYU is one of the country’s criminally-underrated college basketball rivalries.

As a native East Coaster and college basketball enthusiast, that is what I knew Utah-BYU to be when I began working for The Salt Lake Tribune a year ago.

I knew this was a football-centric market when I came out here, but I was very excited to dive into the Utah-BYU basketball rivalry. So, on my second day of work, I made my way to the Huntsman Basketball Facility to cover Larry Krystkowiak’s day-before-BYU press conference. I was floored at the lack of media in the room. It might’ve been four reporters and a television camera or two.

The next night, I watched Holladay native Rylan Jones, who grew up knowing what the rivalry was about given his dad, Chris, played at Utah and has been a career assistant at various Division I programs in the state, hit every big shot in overtime to bury BYU at the Huntsman Center. The venerable 15,000-seat arena did not host a better crowd last season than it did that night.

My first Utah-BYU experience left an impression on me. As we head towards another renewal late Saturday afternoon in Provo (4 p.m., BYUtv), I find myself thinking about this rivalry, what it is, what it could be in the near future, how the Utah fan base feels about it.

As far as I can tell, based on emails and social-media interaction from a lot of Ute fans, the word that comes to mind is ... indifferent? That may not be the prevailing notion, but I’ve been getting more of that than I thought I would.

OK. Fine, here’s my take.

The game matters. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as it once did because the Utes and Cougars are playing in different conferences now, and football has taken over as the primary sport of choice in this market, and Utah hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in a while, but it matters to a lot of people around these parts. I’m sure of at least that much.

My primary thing at the moment regarding this is that the matchup lacks juice, which any good rivalry must have. Maybe that changes soon, though. The Caleb Lohner saga over the summer felt like it had Utah fans ready to hate BYU all over again, as does the fact that Mark Pope rode into Provo and served immediate notice of the Cougars becoming nationally relevant again.

On the other end, the Nick Emery situation a few years back and subsequent one-year cancelation of the rivalry haven’t exactly endeared Krystkowiak to BYU fans.

I could go on and on here, but I’ve already hit the bottom line. Utah-BYU is timeless, even if it has lost some luster. For multiple reasons, maybe that shine starts to come back, but either way, the rivalry is reupped through at least 2023, so it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Good. The East Coaster in me wouldn’t want it any other way.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• The fact that Utah and Colorado will play a football game on FOX in the noon ET window Saturday is great news for the Utes, great news for the Buffs, great news for the Pac-12, and bad news for FOX Sports. As Awful Announcing laid out on Tuesday, the game that was originally in that Utah-Colorado slot, Ohio State-Michigan, is a ratings bonanza and generally one of the most-watched regular season games of the entire college football season. No other game is going to compare ratings-wise, let alone a Pac-12 game. That’s not a jab at anyone, it’s merely the way it is.

• The Pac-12 playing roulette this fall with kickoff times and locations has been interesting, but it only works when there are no fans and no ticket holders to worry about. I’m glad it’ll only be a one-year phenomenon, because it has been quite aggravating.

• Great win the other night by the Utah women’s basketball team, beating No. 15 Oregon State in Corvallis, 85-79. That victory came two days removed from losing by 43 at Oregon and after the program paused due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Ute coach Lynne Roberts has sounded high on this group of players, and that faith was rewarded. The Utes host Montana State Friday, then dive back into Pac-12-play Monday at Colorado.

• Among Power Six basketball conferences (Power Five + Big East), the Pac-12 is sixth in that pecking order. The league has few, if any, top-notch nonconference wins, but that may change Thursday when Arizona State welcomes San Diego State to Tempe. The Aztecs already have a decisive season-opening victory over UCLA, which, along with the Sun Devils, is expected to contend at the top of the Pac-12. Thursday night is a big spot for Arizona State, not to mention the league.

• The possibility of Colorado going unbeaten and not even winning the Pac-12 South is pretty silly, especially given that USC would win the division with its own COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent game cancellation against the Buffs on Nov. 28 ultimately acting as a benefit. Even sillier? The Pac-12 North could also be won under similar circumstances, with division-leading Washington pausing on Wednesday and a Saturday matchup at Oregon now in doubt.

• I made my season-debut at the Huntsman Center for the Idaho State game, and it felt wrong. It felt wrong to be there, it felt wrong that a game was being played in the middle of the pandemic, the whole vibe of the entire experience was off. That’s a shame, but this is where we are in college basketball. Everyone is plowing forward, trying to get as many games in as possible, without a ton of regard for anything else.

Your questions

Q: “Should Utah basketball be looking for another nonconference game to get them to the (NCAA) Tournament?” — @coreyc04

A: Yes, but there’s a major caveat there.

Utah already has four nonconference games, three of which — Idaho State, Utah Valley and Idaho — offer little in terms of building an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume. Adding a fifth nonconference game against a comparable team does nothing to advance the Utes’ cause.

However, if Krystkowiak wants to go out and find a KenPom Top 75-100 team and get some value, then yes, I think Utah should do that. Scheduling a KenPom sub-300 or the like gets the Utes another game, gets the players another run, gets Krystkowiak another opportunity to tweak his rotation, but it doesn’t get you closer to the NCAA Tournament.

If your options are adding a subpar nonconference opponent, or holding firm ahead of facing what is expected to be a quality Pac-12 schedule, I would take the latter.

Q: “Given the limitations of the MBB nonconference schedule, what does the conference record have to look like to make the Tourney? Would 13-7 do it?” — @Zach__Lloyd

A: I appreciate this question, but it’s impossible to answer, because playing games and building results are not done in a vacuum.

Would 13-7 and do it? Maybe, but not all 13-7 conference records would be the same. Utah could go 13-7 against the Pac-12, but, and I’m making this up, a handful of the seven losses could be to programs with bad NET ratings (both Washington schools, Cal, Oregon State). Or, 13-7 could mean Utah cleaned up against the bottom of the league, then struggled against the top half (UCLA, Arizona State, Oregon, etc.).

Through two games, my opinion of Utah hasn’t changed. If the Pac-12 is going to get six or even seven teams to the NCAA Tournament, I see no reason the Utes can’t be one of them.

Q: “4-6 weeks back, Mark Harlan announced that Utah athletics would be experiencing a $$$ shortfall of roughly $40-$50 million dollars. Is there an update to those figures now that we’ve played some football and basketball?” — @OuterDarknezz

A: For the sake of accuracy, in August, Harlan ballparked the 2021 fiscal budget shortfall at $50-60 if no football is played.

Obviously, football has been played. Utah has three games under its belt, will play a fourth this weekend at Colorado, a fifth on Dec. 19 against a TBD opponent, and maybe even a sixth if it is bowl-eligible. Every game played gets on TV, which equates to media revenue, which helps to bridge that budget deficit.

There is no update to what that budget deficit is now projected as, and I don’t expect one until at least the end of the football season, if not much longer, to be honest.

One thing to keep in mind: Harlan said on Sept. 11, then again on Oct. 1, that his budget has been brought down to a point where the athletic department can work with central campus to obtain a loan to get it through the rest of the year.

It is unclear whether or not that loan has been executed yet, but I suspect decisions aren’t being made there until we see how many football games got played.

Random musings

• The God---- Jets

• My wife’s AirPods went through the washing machine and the drier (my bad), yet survived and still work normally. How is that possible?

• I’m still a little unclear on what the inversion is, what it does to the air quality, and how I’m supposed to be affected.

• In a state with roughly 2 million Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints members, many or most of whom presumably do not drink coffee, I think Swig is a very smart business idea. You won’t catch me drinking soda at 7:30 in the morning, but that’s neither here, nor there.

• Winter is upon us, which means it’s the season of stout beers, right? Wrong. Too dark, too bitter, I feel I’m drinking chalk. Have a good time with those, I’ll pass.

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