Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Utah was seen as one of the most underrated landscapes in terms of college basketball. There were three good teams in the state that were constantly vying for spots in the NCAA Tournament, and it looked like the Mountain West could become one of the top conferences in the country with a few shrewd moves and a bit of luck.
Unfortunately, the conference and the basketball scene in Utah has taken a step backwards, but the Utah State Aggies and BYU Cougars are looking to bring back those halcyon days this season. Both teams want to show that it’s more than just Nevada and Gonzaga west of the Continental Divide.
Nick Emery is set to make his season debut for BYU, and the Cougars’ star guard is coming back at just the right time. Emery was suspended for the first nine games of the season following an NCAA investigation into his relationship with a booster, and he has not played since the tail end of the 2016-17 season after sitting out last year for personal reasons. He is a solid three-point shooter, and he will help the Cougars stretch the court if he doesn’t show signs of rust.
Utah State will not have center Klay Stall and forward Roche Grootfaam available this season after both players suffered torn ACLs in the offseason.
There has been a little bit of line movement in this game. Utah State initially opened as a one-point favorite on the CBB betting line, but BYU is now a 1.5-point favorite. The total has risen from an opening line of 160.5 to 161.5.
What’s at Stake?
These two teams are fierce rivals. In football, they play for The Old Wagon Wheel, and although there is no similar trophy awarded when their basketball teams meet, this game means more than just any old non-conference game.
This is a must-win game for BYU if it has any chance of eventually qualifying for the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team. The Cougars are 5-4, and they have lost three straight games. The last two losses were to teams outside of Ken Pomeroy’s top 125 and given the struggles that fellow WCC school St. Mary’s has had getting an at-large bid, BYU needs to avoid another loss.
Utah State is looking to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, and the Aggies have gotten off to a good start. They are 7-1 with a win over St. Mary’s, and the team’s only loss to date was against Arizona State. This is the second-to-last quality opponent Utah State will face before MWC play kicks off.
Both teams will face another Utah team this weekend, making for an exciting week of basketball in the Beehive State. The Aggies have had three days off coming into their tilt against BYU, and they will host Weber State on Saturday. As for the Cougars, they lost to Weber State over the weekend, and they will host arch-rival Utah on Saturday.
A lot of the focus here will be on the return of Emery, but BYU’s best player these days is definitely Yoeli Childs. Childs was a preseason all-WCC pick, and he has lived up to the expectations through the first month of the season. He is averaging 22 PPG and 11.9 RPG, and he has been very efficient from the field, hitting over 52 percent of his field goal attempts. Childs has a great inside-outside game and is one of the best shot blockers in the conference, and his play will be key for BYU.
Utah State’s offense will run through Sam Merrill. The 6’5 guard is lights out from distance, and he led the MWC in three-point shooting in conference play last season, sinking over 53 percent of his shots from downtown. He has continued to have a hot hand through eight games this year, hitting nearly 52 percent of his field goals. Merrill also leads the team in assists, and the ball will be in his hands for much of the game. BYU will likely try to pressure him to get the ball out of his hands and into someone else’s. He is the only player averaging more than 24 minutes per game, and other players aren’t used to being the distributor.
BYU will try to stop him, but I think Merrill will spoil Emery’s return and lead Utah State to a win in a hostile environment.