The stage is set.
The No. 12 BYU Cougars (21-2) will travel to Las Vegas this weekend to take on the UNLV Rebels (18-4) on Saturday at 1:00 PM PST.
The Cougars are fresh off a relatively easy 20 point home win over TCU. The Rebels come in hot as well, having just handed Wyoming their worst home loss in over 50 years.
A UNLV victory, combined with a New Mexico win over San Diego State later in the day, would create a three way tie atop the Mountain West Conference standings.
To fans of both schools, however, this game cultivates particularly poignant sentiments.
Breaking Down the Rivalry
UNLV has a rival: The University of Nevada Reno.
BYU has a rival: The University of Utah.
The Rebels and Cougars are not rivals, at least not in the traditional sense. There are no intrastate bragging rights on the line. No trophies. No catchy, commercialized nicknames.
Despite only qualifying for pseudo-rivalry status on paper, over the last few years the actual games have developed an undeniable rivalry feel. Saturday’s contest is guaranteed to produce a wild atmosphere.
Who’s No. 1?
Over the last three years, BYU and UNLV have been the best two programs in the MWC. This is beyond debate.
The Cougars have won three consecutive MWC regular season championships but have zero conference tournament titles and no NCAA tournament victories in that span.
The Rebels haven’t won a regular season crown in Lon Kruger’s tenure, but have won two of the last three conference tournaments and three NCAA tournament games in as many years.
When BYU and UNLV meet, it’s always two of the MWC’s best squaring off. Conference titles, national respect, and NCAA tournament inclusion and/or seeding are on the line each time.
This year is no exception. The Cougars and the Rebels have developed a mutual dislike through consistently battling for MWC supremacy.
The Sarah Cummard effect
In the aftermath of the Rebels’ victory in the MWC tournament championship game, Sarah Cummard, the wife of former BYU standout Lee Cummard, became the unlikely symbol of the budding basketball rivalry.
Fans of both programs need no reminder of Mrs. Cummard’s sudden and unexpected notoriety. Accounts of the events immediately following the game vary drastically depending on the intrinsic loyalty of the story-teller.
There was, in fact, some sort of altercation involving a cluster of UNLV fans and a cluster of BYU fans, including Mrs. Sarah Cummard. From there it is difficult to disentangle the truth from swirling rumor and hyperbole.
Honestly, I don’t want to get into; it’s far too volatile. I’d rather spark a universal health-care debate at a bipartisan archery range.
Whatever truly happened is irrelevant. The incident ignited a rancorous fire of antipathy. Rebels’ fans added fuel to that fire last March, chanting, “Psycho Sarah” as Lee attempted free throws.
Lee has moved on. Sarah likely won’t be in attendance, but she’ll be there in spirit. She’s a part of it now.
Also worth Mentioning
The two best players in the MWC, and the top two candidates for Player of the Year, will both be on the court Saturday.
Entering conference play, BYU’s Jimmer Fredette looked poised to run away with the POY award. Fresh off a 49 point performance, he was playing at another level, head and shoulders above the competition. Shortly thereafter, Fredette was derailed by illness. He appears to be back at full strength now, but he has competition at the top.
UNLV’s Tre’Von Willis averaged 14.5 points and 3.1 assists per game through the non-conference portion of the schedule, punctuated by four points and five fouls in a loss to USC.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Willis exploded out of the gate in conference play. He scored at least 20 in each of the first six conference games and is currently leading the MWC with 21.6 points per contest.
If Willis hopes to stay within range of Fredette, a head-to-head statement performance will go a long way.
One Last Thing
The programs share one other unlikely common bond:
Both coaches have bounced back from life-threatening health scares.
Last summer, BYU coach Dave Rose was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After a few heart wrenching days, news emerged that Rose's cancer was of the much rarer and much less deadly variety of pancreatic cancer.
The previous offseason, Rebel fans were shocked to learn that head coach Lon Kruger had undergone sextuple-bypass heart surgery.
Neither man skipped a beat, and both are prime candidates once again for MWC coach of the year.
The contest might not qualify by all criteria as a true rivalry. It makes no difference.
Any time the Rebels and Cougars meet, an atmosphere as intense and sincerely hostile as any in college basketball is a guarantee.