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No. 12 BYU Takes On Crosstown UVU In Mark Pope’s Return

Dec 1, 2021, 12:26 AM
BYU Basketball - UVU - Alex Barcello...
BYU basketball guard Alex Barcello rises up against UVU guard Blaze Nield. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
(Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

OREM, Utah – The 12th ranked BYU basketball team is undefeated right now, but head coach Mark Pope feels there is much room for his team to grow.

“We’re super proud of where we are right now six games into the season. But we have to get better. Like our ultimate goal is way bigger than anything that we’ve accomplished so far,” said BYU coach Mark Pope after practice on Tuesday. “And the only way to do that is to get better. So we’re grateful for this great competition that we’re going to face.”

The next competitor on BYU’s non-conference schedule is a familiar one to Pope, Utah Valley (6-1) in the “Crosstown Clash.” UVU was Pope’s first head coaching stop in his career from 2015-19 where he posted a 77-56 record leading the Wolverines.

He will make his first visit to the UCCU Center tonight since he became BYU’s head coach in 2019.

“I’ve got a lot of love for Utah Valley,” said Pope. “You know, we fought, bled, and sweat there for four years. We still laugh about things that happened as we tried to find our way as a staff and you know, we had some incredible young me compete for us in our four years there. It’s a really special place.”

When Mark Pope was at UVU, he guided the Wolverines to their lone victory over BYU basketball back in 2016. One year later, in 2017, the Wolverines hosted the Cougars for the first time in Orem. They lost that game 85-58.

This is the second meeting of a three-game series between the two schools.

No. 12 BYU vs. UVU

Tip: 7 p.m.

Date: December 1, 2021

Location: UCCU Center (Orem)

TV: BYUtv

Radio: KSL NewsRadio (102.7 FM, 1160 AM – Pregame begins at 6 p.m.)

Series: BYU leads 4-1 (5-1 if you include an NCAA vacated victory in 2015)

Will BYU basketball find their touch from beyond the three-point line?

Through five games against D-1 competition, BYU has only had one game shooting above 30% from three. That was a blowout victory against then-No. 12 Oregon in Portland.

“You saw in that Oregon game we shot the ball really well. We’ve been a little streaky shooting the ball from outside. But one thing that I’m really looking forward to is when we’re on and hitting our shots, we’re a scary team,” said BYU guard Spencer Johnson, who is shooting 44% from three this year.

Senior guard Alex Barcello leads BYU in shooting from deep at 48.3%, followed by Johnson and guard Te’Jon Lucas, who is shooting 37.5%. Lucas has found his groove offensively at BYU as of late. The Milwaukee transfer put together back-to-back 18-point performances to go with an average of 4.5 assists a week ago.

Crash the glass

BYU is 14th nationally in rebound margin at 11.3 boards per game. Mark Pope is proud of that through the first month of the season as his team has faced some of the nation’s top rebounding teams. However, they’ll get another challenging test on Wednesday night against UVU, the 21st team nationally in offensive rebounds.

Three BYU players are averaging at least seven boards per game right now in Caleb Lohner, Fousseyni Traore, and Gideon George. Starting forward Gavin Baxter has also averaged 3.3 boards per game. Baxter, who had a season-high 14 points in a win at Utah last Saturday, did not practice on Tuesday due to a cold. Coaches kept him out for precautionary reasons, and it wasn’t COVID-related.

What to know about UVU

The Mark Madsen era keeps getting better each year in Orem. After a disastrous 11-19 record in his first year, the Wolverines claimed a share of the WAC title with Grand Canyon last year. In addition, they are off to their best seven-game start (6-1) since making the jump to Division I in 2004.

UVU is off to this hot start without their leading scorer from last season in UNLV transfer Trey Woodbury. Woodbury is dealing with an injury that is expected to keep him out till January. He scored 24 points against BYU last year.

This six-game winning streak UVU is on has come against teams rated 223 or lower in the KenPom ratings. Their one game against a Top-100 squad was a 20-point loss to Boise State in the season opener.

The Wolverines’ success starts with center Fardaws Aimaq. A 6-foot-11 big man originally from Mercer is averaging an eye-popping 20.3 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game.

Last season, Aimaq was the first NCAA player since Larry Smith from Alcorn State in 1980 to average 15 rebounds per game. Aimaq earned WAC Player of the Year honors a season ago and tested the NBA draft waters. But, to date, he’s probably the best big this year’s BYU basketball team will face to this point of the schedule.

UVU has been shooting the ball well this season as they are 34th nationally, knocking down 49% of their shots.

Two former BYU basketball players in UVU’s starting five

A pair of former BYU basketball players are in the starting lineup for Utah Valley in point guard Blaze Nield and guard Connor Harding. Nield was a preferred walk-on from Eastern Utah for BYU during Pope’s first season in 2019-20.

Harding was a starter last season in 12 games for the Cougars.

Both players are significant contributors to Mark Madsen’s program.

Probable Starters

BYU (6-0)

G – Alex Barcello, 6-2, 192, Sr.

G – Te’Jon Lucas, 6-1, 187, Sr.

F – Gideon George, 6-6, 210, Sr.

F – Caleb Lohner, 6-8, 235, Soph.

C – Gavin Baxter, 6-9, 228, Sr.

UVU (6-1)

G – Blaze Nield, 6-1, 185, Jr.

G – Le’Tre Darthard, 6-4, 180, Soph.

G – Connor Harding, 6-6, 185, Jr.

F – Tim Fuller, 6-9, 235, Soph.

C – Fardaws Aimaq, 6-11, 245, Soph.

BYU vs. UVU Prediction

Expect a rocking atmosphere at the 8,500-seat UCCU Center. BYU’s upcoming move to the Big 12 Conference in 2023 could set the stage for this trip down University Parkway as the Cougars last to Orem for the foreseeable future. Aimaq will be a challenge for BYU. Expect him to get his as he’s a walking double-double.

The bigger question for BYU is, will Pope’s squad prevent UVU’s Nield or Harding from going off in this game?

The former BYU players would likely love nothing more than to knock off their old team.

BYU’s defense has yet to allow 65 points or more to any of their six opponents. It’s one of the best defensive starts in the 21st century for the program as they are 10th nationally in limiting their opponent’s effective field goal percentage to a 41.1% average.

To highlight the growth BYU has seen defensively, it starts with their star Alex Barcello, who is 19th nationally in spot-up defense this year. The past two seasons, he was in the bottom 10% nationally.

BYU’s defense suffocates everyone not named Aimaq from UVU, and they find their groove from three in the second half.

BYU 79, UVU 63

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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