By Nicholas Goodfellow
First place in the Mountain West Conference is on the line as the BYU Cougars travel to Salt Lake for a battle with first-place Utah.
The game will be televised on ESPN at 10 p.m. as part of Big Monday, and can also be heard on KSL Radio 1160.
The Cougars look to avenge their only home loss of the season when Utah beat BYU 79-75 Jan. 25, though coach Steve Cleveland said he doesn”t like to look at it that way.
“I don”t look at these things in terms of redemption,” Cleveland said.
The University of Utah has won eight straight games since its opening conference loss to San Diego State, thanks in large part to the steady production of its bench, led by sophomore Marc Jackson. Jackson led the Utes in scoring against the Cougars, and really was the one who made the difference in their win in Provo.
“He is a great player,” sophomore Terry Nashif said. “The key is to go after him offensively…to keep him on his toes…and make him play defense.”
But Jackson isn”t the only Ute that the Cougars are going to have to worry about. Utah”s big three — juniors Nick Jacobsen and Tim Frost and senior Britton Johnsen — have been on a tear in the league, dominating teams with their size and shooting ability.
“The thing with Utah is they”re extremely sound,” junior Ricky Bower said. “The teams that have success against Utah are the teams that make plays, make shots. I guess that is not rocket science, but it really comes down to that.”
The Cougars are one in a small group of teams that match up pretty well with the Utes. BYU starts 6-foot-9 sophomore Jared Jensen at the four position, and 6-foot-11 junior Rafael Araujo clogs up the middle. Jensen has been playing well, but Araujo has been struggling as of late and needs to be a factor offensively for the Cougars to be a threat to Utah.
“He (Araujo) has never played in games that had this much meaning before,” Cleveland said. He has to learn to adjust and learn from it, and hopefully he will.”
The Cougars also hope to get another big game from their own 1-2 punch in Mark Bigelow and Travis Hansen. Hansen and Bigelow combined to score 35 of the Cougars” 66 points against San Diego State, and it was Hansen”s late heroics that eventually won the game for BYU.
To beat Utah, the Cougars are going to have to be stronger defensively and get a big lift from their bench.
“We need to do a much better job defending against their ball screens,” Cleveland said. “We need to do a much better job defending the post.”
Bower said he understands his role coming off the bench, but realizes that to win the game it will have to be a total team effort.
“We need production out of every single position, every single person, every single player,” he said.
It remains to be seen which players will show up for what could end up being the Cougars” most important game of the season.