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BYU-Utah Preview: Matchups, Storylines, What to Watch, and More

Utah v Brigham Young Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

BYU and Utah meet Saturday in Salt Lake City for what I think is the biggest BYU-Utah game for the Cougars since both teams left the MWC. Utah has had some ranked teams with NBA players during that time, but this game carries more significance for BYU than any of the rivalry games since 2011. A win here would put BYU on a path to an undefeated, 13-0 record in non-conference play before Big 12 play begins in January.

This is also a huge game for Utah. The Utes have a squad good enough to compete for a NCAA Tournament bid. Fan support hasn’t come around and the vaunted Huntsman Center curtains are well documented, but a win for them versus BYU could be the turning point to reignite the fanbase and put them on a path to contend for a NCAA Tournament bid.

I’ve watched every BYU game and 5 of Utah’s 8 games this season, so I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp of how these teams matchup. Below I breakdown Utah’s players to watch and the matchups and storylines I am watching.

Utah and BYU by the Numbers

BYU KenPom: 6

Record: 8-0

Best Wins: San Diego State, Arizona State (N), NC State (N)

Utah KenPom: 39

Record: 6-2

Losses: Houston (N), St John’s (N)

Best Wins: Wake Forest (N), Saint Mary’s (A)

KenPom Prediction: BYU 79, Utah 75 — BYU 65% win probabiliy

Vegas Spread: BYU -4 (BYU favorite)

Utah Players to Watch

Branden Carlson, Forward/Center — The fifth-year senior is one of the best big men in college basketball and will be the best player on the floor Saturday evening. Carlson missed Tuesday’s game for SUU, but I expect him to play. I don’t have anything sourced on that and Craig Smith hasn’t confirmed he’ll play, but my guess is the talk of Carlson being TBD is Coach speak. If Carlson can’t play, I don’t see Utah having much of a chance. Carlson is averaging 17.6 ppg on 37% shooting from three. The 7-footer plays the four next to Lawson Lovering and the 5 when Lovering is on the bench.

Gabe Madsen, Guard — The Utes second-leading scorer has seen a jump in production and efficiency as a senior. Madsen averages 14.3 ppg on 50% shooting from the floor and 43% from three. Madsen scored 29 points and canned 8 threes in Utah’s loss to Houston.

Lawson Lovering, Center — The 7-foot-1 transfer from Colorado forms a big front court with Carlson. Aly Khalifa will get the matchup on Lovering when both are in the game. Lovering is a solid low-post scorer and averages 8.3 ppg on the year. He’s recorded a block in just 4 of Utah’s 8 games.

Cole Bajema, Guard/Forward — A 6-foot-7 transfer from Washington, Bajema averages 10.6 ppg and shoots 37% from three. He’s 1-8 from three his last two games, but has three games this year with three made threes. 37 of his 57 FG attempts are from beyond the arc.

Rollie Worster, Guard — Worster isn’t a flashy point guard, but he’s started 93 college games and is the point man for an effective Utah offense. Worster averages 11 points and 6 assists on 39% shooting from the floor.

Keba Keita, Forward/Center — Keba is a bit undersized big man, but he’s athletic and has been a weapon off the bench for Utah when healthy. He’s coming off 23 point performance versus SUU and brings some athletic pop off the bench for the Utes.

Matchups and Storylines to Watch

  • BYU offense versus Utah defense — BYU has been one of the nation’s most potent offenses, leading the nation with 13 made threes per game and shooting 39% from three. Fousseyni Traore is out with a knee/hamstring injury and should continue to miss time, but BYU’s offense might be better with Aly Khalifa at the 5. A 38% 3-point shooter and the best passing big man in the country, Khalifa allows BYU to go 5 out and slice defenses by finding shooters or cutters to the basket. I’m really curious how much Utah plays Lovering this game. With Lovering guarding Khalifa on the perimeter and Carlson chasing Noah Waterman around the 3-point line, I think Khalifa could shred Utah’s defense — those two players aren’t tailored to guard on the perimeter for long stretches. I think Utah would be better suited to run Carlson more at the 5 spot.

One thing Utah’s defense doesn’t do is force many turnovers. They don’t have a ton of athleticism on the perimeter, so they rely on being in the right spot and contesting shots rather than getting in the passing lanes or trapping. That strategy worked fine for Utah last year as they were one of the nation’s best teams at defending the three, but the Utes have been terrible at guarding the 3-point line this season. They rank 287 nationally in 3-point defense. Utah knows they have to guard BYU at the 3-point line, so I expect them to make a concerted effort to make BYU’s shot attempts difficult (to be fair, every team BYU has played this season has tried that too and we’ve seen the results).

  • Utah offense versus BYU defense — Utah has a good offense. They don’t shoot the volume of threes BYU does, but they are top 50 nationally at 38% shooting from three. The offense revolves around Branden Carlson with the attention he draws and his ability to score inside and from deep. I think BYU can matchup with the Utes pretty well when Lovering is at the 5 and Carlson is at the 4. Lovering won’t out-athletic Khalifa and while Noah Waterman won’t shut down Carlson by any means, I think he can do ok and won’t get totally worked.

I think Utah’s best chance to beat BYU is running with Carlson predominantly at the 5. That would put BYU in a really tough spot with Aly Khalifa. Offensively BYU would be fine, but I just don’t see Khalifa matching up with Carlson defensively. Carlson will live on the perimeter and force Aly to chase him around, which presents a huge matchup advantage for Utah. BYU would need to make the decision to either 1) sacrifice some on the defensive end if they think they can just outscore Utah with Khalifa on offense or 2) run more Noah Waterman and Atiki at the 5 so they can better matchup with Carlson.

Honestly, I think that is the number one thing I will watch. How much Utah plays with Carlson at the five and what BYU does to counter.

  • Hunter Erickson revenge game? We’ve seen some former BYU Cougs have great days when they get their chance to play BYU — Isaac Neilson and Blaze Nield are a couple players that come to mind. Erickson is Utah’s backup point guard and averages over 20 minutes a gam and will be itching to get revenge on his former coaching staff. Erickson hasn’t put up big numbers this season, but he has the shooting ability to go on a hot streak.
  • BYU and Utah depth— Utah has the best player in the game with Branden Carlson, but BYU has more scoring options. Keba Keita is the most consistent scoring option off the bench for Utah, and BYU off the bench brings Jaxson Robinson and his 17 ppg and Richie Saunders who averages nearly 10 points and brings limitless energy.

Prediction

There will be a lot of BYU fans at this game, but it will still be a homecourt advantage for Utah. They have the MUSS and I suspect season-ticket holders bought most of the lower bowl tickets. This will be BYU’s first true road game of the season, which could affect BYU’s offensive rhythm and three-point shooting.

Utah can absolutely win this game. Branden Carlson is a fantastic player and Utah has good shooters around him. I think BYU wins a close one due to their multitude of shooters, ability to minimize Utah’s size by forcing their bigs to guard on the perimeter, and the sheer number of possessions BYU should have to make shots or manufacture second chance points since Utah doesn’t force many turnovers.

Prediction: BYU 82, Utah 77