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For the first time since he spurned the local university and left home for Washington, C.J. Wilcox spent a summer in Utah. At least three times a week last year, the Huskies guard and former Pleasant Grove High School star would drag himself into a small high school gym in Salt Lake City and practice. And work.
Footwork and shooting drills, creating shots and developing post moves. It was all on the docket for the hourlong sessions with Wilcox's trainer, and perhaps unlikely mentor, former Utah guard Johnnie Bryant.
"Like I told him when he left, 'Man, I'm teaching you all these things and I hope they don't come to bite the University of Utah in the back down the road,' " Bryant said.
Wilcox, a 6-foot-5 sophomore guard, returns to Salt Lake City on Saturday with the Huskies (8-6, 2-1) to take on the Utes at the Huntsman Center. He is Washington's second-leading scorer at 15.6 points per game, despite coming off the bench since the start of Pac-12 play. He scored a season-high 24 points against Oregon on Dec. 31.
For Wilcox, the game against the Utes (4-10, 1-1) marks an unanticipated homecoming. When Wilcox chose the Huskies over Utah and then-coach Jim Boylen in 2008, he was also picking the Pac-10 over the Mountain West Conference.
Then, in 2010, Utah and Colorado joined to create the Pac-12.
"When Utah entered the conference I just remembered going to him and he had a smile on his face, being able to go home and play in front of family and friends," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.
Wilcox said he has provided 36 tickets to Saturday's game, and he has received text messages saying many other people are buying their own tickets to see the former Utah County star.
Bryant will be there. He now runs a basketball academy in Salt Lake City, and has trained other basketball stars including Weber State's Damian Lillard. The former guard, who last played for the Utes in 2008, said he will be torn on Saturday.
"I want C.J. to score 50," Bryant said, "but I also want us to win."
It almost didn't have to be that way. Wilcox was very nearly a Ute, and then Bryant and every other Ute fan could have had both.
"Ever since I was a sophomore in high school," Wilcox said, "I thought I was going to go there. But then it changed. It's going to be kind of weird being in that arena knowing I could have been there the whole time."
Wilcox's Huskies have been up and down this season. They opened Pac-12 play 2-0 with wins over Oregon State and Oregon, but they lost their fifth straight road game Thursday at Colorado.
Meanwhile, the Utes have been disastrous, at least up to the point they knocked off Washington State in overtime Thursday.
It's easy to imagine a different situation at Utah if Wilcox had opted to play for the Utes. Romar calls him one of the best outside shooters in the country (he has made 44 percent of his 3-point attempts this season) and by some websites Wilcox is considered a future first round NBA draft pick.
But Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said he doesn't let it bother him that one of the state's best players isn't in his program. Already this season he has seen former Brighton star Corbin Miller score 13 points for Harvard against the Utes.
"There's an awful lot of kids in L.A., for example, that don't go to UCLA and USC that are flourishing other places," the first-year coach said. "You can't keep them all."
But with his return, Wilcox said it's hard not to reflect on nearly becoming a Ute, particularly considering the struggles Utah has had to open its inaugural Pac-12 season.
"It's just weird because I was so close to being there," he said, "and so close to being in that situation right now. You never want to see the school that you were about to go to not to do well."
Never. Unless you're playing against it.
P At Huntsman Center
Tipoff • Saturday, noon
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 4-10 (1-1), Washington 8-6 (2-1)
Series Record • Washington 6-5
Last meeting • Washington 83-77 (Nov. 14, 2007)
About the Utes • Point guard Josh Watkins made elbow jumpers at the end of regulation and overtime to lift the Utes to a 62-60 overtime win against Washington State on Thursday. … Watkins leads the Utes and is sixth in the Pac-12 with 15.5 points per game. … Utes center Jason Washburn is third in the conference with a 60 percent field goal percentage.
About the Huskies • Tony Wroten (17.1) and C.J. Wilcox (15.6) both rank in the top five in scoring in the Pac-12. … Washington is coming off an 87-69 loss at Colorado on Thursday and has lost five games in a row. … The Huskies rank in the top 20 nationally in both points and rebounds per game.
C.J. Wilcox file
Age • 21
Hometown • Pleasant Grove
• Averaged 23.1 points per game his last two years at Pleasant Grove and led the state in scoring (23.7) as a junior.
• Father Craig played at BYU from 1993 to 1995.
• Named to Pac-10 All-Freshman team in 2011 after averaging 8 points per game.
• Set a Washington freshman record with 63 3-pointers last season.
• Washington's second-leading scorer this season, at 15.6 points per game.