The vastly improved Dons of USF play host to the BYU Cougars and their legion of fans seemingly hell-bent on taking over every West Coast Conference venue that they can on Thursday night (8 p.m., ESPNU) at War Memorial Gym.
Some viewers might be fooled into thinking the broadcast is emanating from Provo. BYU fans many of them members of local wards and branches of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns BYU will give the place a neutral-court feel, as they did at BYU's five previous stops in its first year in the WCC Saint Mary's, Loyola Marymount, San Diego, Pepperdine and Portland.
BYU fans outnumbered, or came close to outnumbering, the home team's fans at all five places, especially Portland. However, it should be noted that students were away on the holiday break at the first three venues.
"Anytime we go to a new area, we usually get some pretty good fan [support]," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "The one thing that is a little bit different about this year's schedule is every place is a new area. I think BYU fans have turned out really well to watch this team, and hopefully that will continue in the next three road games."
Because of church membership, primarily, BYU always enjoyed decent crowd support everywhere its basketball team went in the MWC (with the exception of New Mexico, which routinely sells out The Pit). On the Jimmer Fredette Tour last year, that was especially true. But with the exception of the Cougars' visit to TCU, it was nothing like this, perhaps because there are so many church members in areas close to WCC schools.
But the influx of BYU fans into WCC arenas not accustomed to big crowds has come at a cost, and sparked some hostility.
"Oh yeah, definitely, yeah, they don't like that too much, I'll bet," said BYU guard Anson Winder.
Senior forward Noah Hartsock predicted that next year "a lot of teams will get more students out there, and have a bigger fanbase, just because of what we brought to games. … I think they want to compete with that."
It appears that San Francisco has taken steps to avoid that already. The Dons have proclaimed Thursday "Pete Newell Night" in honor of the legendary coach, and the first 4,000 fans through the doors of the 4,800-seat gym will receive gold rally flags. Wishful thinking? Average attendance at USF home games this year is only 1,566.
"I mean, I would think that if I was playing in the Marriott Center, and [the other team] had a whole bunch of fans here, that it would cause a little contention, or just the feeling that it wasn't your place anymore," said BYU guard Brock Zylstra.
A few weeks ago at Pepperdine, when Firestone Fieldhouse was sold out (3,104) for the BYU game, concession lines stretched out the door, and parking at the scenic campus in Malibu, Calif., overlooking the Pacific Ocean was horrendous. They ran out of hot dogs and several other food and beverage items.
At Portland, after BYU fans consistently drowned out the cheers of Pilot fans with their familiar "B-Y-U" chant and other cheers, a Portland student Salt Lake City native Bruce Garlinghouse, no less penned a column in the school newspaper chastising his fellow students for not showing up in force and noted: "Their fans embarrassed you. They embarrassed the community. They were louder, more enthusiastic."
Garlinghouse then complained that BYU fans stayed long after the final buzzer to meet and mingle with BYU players and coaches until Associate Athletic Director Buzz Stroud "had to ask them to leave." Garlinghouse, an admitted Utah fan growing up, called BYU fans' actions "disrespectful," but did acknowledge later that BYU officials asked for permission beforehand for the "gracious accommodation."
Not mentioned was that athletic department budgets are surely benefiting throughout the league.
A few weeks after drawing 3,104 for the BYU game, Pepperdine had 747 fans against San Diego. A few days after Portland drew 4,159 for BYU, it got 2,067 for Loyola Marymount. San Diego, Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary's also saw attendance bumps.
Also, ticket prices at most WCC venues are doubled or even tripled when BYU visits, a practice that's not uncommon throughout college basketball for "super-premium" games. For instance, tickets for Thursday's game normally priced at $15 are selling for anywhere between $42 and $48 on the USF website.
BYU at San Francisco
P At War Memorial Gym, San Francisco
Tipoff • 8 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 21-6, 9-3; San Francisco 17-10, 7-6
Series history • BYU leads, 6-5
Last meeting • BYU 81, San Francisco 56 (Jan. 7)
About the Cougars • They have forced an average of 21 turnovers in their last three games. … They are led in scoring (17.3 ppg.) and blocked shots (1.7 bpg.) by Noah Hartsock. … Brandon Davies is first in WCC play in scoring (17.8 ppg.) and second in rebounding (9.1 rpg.). … They were 62-11 in the last two seasons before this one, the fourth-best record in the country in that stretch.
About the Dons • They have won seven of their last nine, but have yet to play a WCC leader (BYU, Gonzaga, Saint Mary's) at home this season. … They are led in scoring by 6-foot-8 F Angelo Caloiaro (14.7), but three other starters are averaging in double figures. … They are scoring 75.8 points per game and yielding 70.4 ppg.
WCC basketball attendance
School Home avg. For BYU
BYU 14,296 N/A
Gonzaga 6,000 Feb. 23
Saint Mary's 2,921 3,500
Loyola Mary. 2,568 3,073
Portland 2,446 4,159
San Diego 2,429 3,204
Santa Clara 2,138 Saturday
San Francisco 1,566 Thursday
Pepperdine 1,248 3,104