PROVO — With the Mountain West Conference opener lurking ahead next Wednesday at UNLV, it would be easy for the No. 16-ranked BYU Cougars to look past their final two non-conference games this week — especially considering the level of competition.
On paper, and in theory also on the court, the Cougars (12-1) should have no problem disposing of both the Buffalo Bulls tonight on the road and the Fresno Pacific Sunbirds on Saturday back at the Marriott Center.
But if the Cougars let the distractions of the holiday week and the travel back to New York for a second time this month get to them, they might find both games more than just tune-up like scrimmages.
"I think our team has been pretty good at taking things one game at a time," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "The bigger concern is to deal with the travel."
The Bulls, for sure, should be the tougher of the two games. They're 7-3 overall, have won five straight and, going back to last season, have won 10 straight at home. They compete in the Mid-American Conference, are coached by Reggie Witherspoon (12 seasons) and are led in scoring by the sharp-shooting Zach Fullen (16.3 points per game) and backcourt cohort Byron Mulkey, who scores 14.2 ppg and dishes out 4.9 assists per game.
"If we go back there and just let them score and have to match them basket for basket, then it's going to be really hard," Rose said.
The Bulls' challenge to BYU is their long and athletic roster, and their unique offensive schemes.
"They'll swing the ball side to side and set a lot of ball screens, so our guys are going to have to be really active in our defensive system and get up on those screens and help get the ball stopped. ... It's a team that likes to push the ball and score in transition," Rose said.
"They rely on their post guys around the basket. Their post guys don't really stretch the defense. They're not 3-point shooters. But the guards that they play are all playmaking guards, guards that can shoot, pass and make plays for themselves. We'll have our hands full," Rose said.
Tonight's game, the last one added to this year's schedule, was originally part of BYU's effort to get senior Jimmer Fredette a game in his home state of New York. But after Glens Falls officials were able to set up the game against Vermont played earlier this month, this game was put on the shelf. It was then revived when Buffalo agreed to a return game next year in Provo.
Also, Rose thought having a second Fredette game in New York would take some of the hype off the first game.
"I thought, at one time, that if Jimmer knew he was going back two times that it wouldn't put so much pressure on one game, but come on, that game in Glens Falls was unbelievable. We could have scheduled 10 games back there. The pressure of that game was really unique," Rose said.
Tonight's game will be the first-ever meeting between BYU and Buffalo.
Cougars on the air
No. 16 BYU (12-1) vs. Buffalo (7-3)
Today, 5 p.m.
Alumni Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.
TV: None Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM