Le'Tre Darthard and Utah Valley head down I-15 to take on Southern Utah on Thursday. Courtesy UVU Athletics.

‘A dogfight’ – Thoughts from SUU, UVU Coaches Ahead of Rivalry Game

While the coaches of Southern Utah University and Utah Valley University know each other’s programs well, Thursday’s matchup between the two men’s basketball teams has some extra juice. SUU and UVU renew an in-state rivalry with a little more at stake. 

For the first time as members of the Western Athletic Conference, the Thunderbirds will host the Wolverines in the America First Events Center at 7 p.m. MT.

SUU has won each of the last three clashes against UVU dating back to the 2019-20 season. Two of the three games were decided by two possessions or less.

Coaches Todd Simon and Mark Madsen have been jostling for recruiting footholds in Utah for years. While both coaches emphasized that their team is approaching the game with the same intensity and focus as always, the first intra-conference meeting between these two in-state rivals comes with a lot to prove for both teams.

“I anticipate this to be an absolute dogfight,” Madsen told WAC Hoops Digest Thursday.

UVU erupted to a fantastic start to conference play, carrying momentum from an upset at Oregon to a 7-1 record in the WAC, good for second place as of Jan. 26. The Wolverines are also 16-5 overall. SUU has enjoyed similar success — sitting in third place with a 6-2 WAC record, and 14-7 overall.

The Action Network pins the Wolverines as a 1.5-point favorite on the road. The crowd will be a near sell out with UVU bussing down caravans of fans to Cedar City. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.

“Great for the State”

These two programs are near mirror reflections of each other. Both schools struggled to maintain success following performance peaks in the early 2000s.

They each hired up-and-coming coaches to right the ship. Simon at SUU in 2016 and Madsen in 2019. And both coaches have elevated their teams to new heights. Both are on the way to winning 20 games once again this season.

But only one team can win Thursday night. It’s clear that playing the T-Birds was a priority for Madsen when he was hired. They’ve played each of the last three seasons, with SUU emerging victorious each time.

In their last meeting, SUU barely survived a defensive brawl with UVU in the AFEC, 60-56. Fardaws Aimaq bludgeoned the T-Birds with 18 points and 10 rebounds. But clutch buckets and free throws from John Knight III (16 pts) pushed SUU to victory.

It will fall on a new group of stars to make the difference on Thursday night. Overall, SUU leads the all time series against UVU, 5-4.

Ever since SUU announced its decision to jump to the WAC from the Big Sky Conference, administrators have celebrated the rivalries the school would be able to cultivate against UVU and Utah Tech.

Now it’s time to let it play out on the court.

“It’s great for the state of Utah basketball wise, just in terms of promoting the sport, you know … Those rivalry games, I think, are key,” Madsen said.

“You can’t let the game get away” – Madsen’s keys

The Wolverines have been on an unbelievable heater lately, winning 13 of their last 14 and rattling off 11 straight during that stretch. They’ve won each of their last seven on the road — the third longest active streak in the nation.

UVU leads the country in blocks per game with 6.5 swats per game and are one of the best rebounding teams in college basketball.

For Madsen, breaking the losing streak against SUU will start on the defensive end against a stable of SUU’s offensive weapons.

“[SUU] can make 20 3-point shots in a game,” Madsen said. “They can attack you and pound you in the post. They can hit the glass hard. We’ve walked through a lot of their stuff, and they run great stuff…They’ve done a great job building up a tremendous program.”

Both coaches noted the importance of rebounding in this contest. UVU leads the WAC in rebounding but the T-Birds are in second place.

 Each team likes to get out on the break. But the Wolverines will need “the discipline to get the ball out and execute,” when opportunities to run are clogged up, Madsen said.

“Being on the road, in a hostile environment, you can’t let the game get away from you,” Madsen said.

That could easily happen if the Wolverines can’t slow down SUU’s high powered offense (86.0 PPG, second in NCAA). The T-Birds have the best FG% in the conference But the Wolverines have held opponents to the lowest percentage of any WAC team.

“You’ve got to make sure that you know all the personnel. It’s not like they’re playing 10 to 12 guys. They play their key, you know, seven man rotation. But you have to know the tendencies and the strength of every player that comes on the court,” Madsen said.

A season high 25 points from junior guard Le’Tre Darthard led the Wolverines to a narrow 76-74 win at GCU last week. Darthard, who averages 12.6 PPG, and senior Trey Woodbury, 13.4 PPG, pace the Wolverine offense.

In a dogfight like the one Madsen is expecting, the difference typically comes down to making big plays when it counts, he said. The Wolverines have assembled an impressive collection of defensive stoppers like sophomore Aziz Bandaogo. Can they slow down the Thunderbirds high-flying offense?

“Not going to back down from anybody” – Simon’s keys

The T-Birds are coming off a bit of an emotional rollercoaster over their last two games. They could hardly miss as a deluge of 3-pointers lifted them to a 111-point win against New Mexico State on Jan. 19, but struggled to get anything to fall against Seattle on Jan. 21.

Simon said his team generated good looks against the first-place Redhawks, and he’s confident in his team’s mentality heading into the UVU game.

“They’re not going to back down from anybody… We’ve been together for forever. They’re all reliable,” Simon said.

A crucial part of that mentality has come from seniors Maizen Fausett and Harrison Butler, some of the first recruits Simon landed at SUU when he was hired.

Butler has reached a new level in Simon’s system as a full-time guard and defensive stopper. 

“[Butler] really committed on that end and lost a lot of weight,” Simon said. “We said, ‘We’re going to play you more exclusively at the guard.’ Now, he’s drawing the opponent’s best player almost every game and doing a great, great job.”

Jason Spurgin and the T-Birds host Utah Valley on Thursday night. Courtesy SUU Athletics.

Fausett, Butler and sophomore center Jason Spurgin will have to fight to control the defensive glass to get the T-Birds transition attack in motion. Simon noted that the team has only reached the national scoring heights it has because of the effort his players are making to get stops.

Against UVU, protecting the ball will be key, Simon said. The Wolverines rank near the bottom of the WAC in turnover margin.

“If we take care of the possessions, we’re gonna give ourselves a chance,” Simon said.

Senior wing Tevian Jones ranks third in the conference in scoring at 19.6 PPG. But he’ll have his work cut out for him against UVU’s defensive stalwarts. Jones has the ability to embark on a 10-0 scoring run by himself to take a game over like no one else on his team. Simon will need to get him going early and often.

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Connor Sanders

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