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San Diego

Before they beat Santa Clara 95-78 in front of 16,116 fans at the Marriott Center in another lopsided West Coast Conference game, BYU basketball players watched former Mountain West Conference foes UNLV and San Diego State battle in front of a packed house at Viejas Arena here last Saturday.

Two nights later, the Cougars got a chance to play in America's most beautiful city. But 5,100-seat Jenny Craig Pavilion — the "Slim Gym," as it were — was not bursting at the seams, not even close, as the Cougars practically sleepwalked their way to an 82-63 win.

And the city's other college basketball team they crushed on Monday, the San Diego Toreros, are not even close in talent to the nationally ranked Aztecs. The Cougars wouldn't admit it — "They all count the same," coach Dave Rose constantly reminds — but the victory must have felt as empty as the arena.

After scoring a game-high 17 points against USD in front of a subdued crowd of 3,204, a number that included the usual large share of BYU fans, Cougar junior Brock Zylstra was a little bit wistful.

"Yeah, San Diego State's arena, they call [their student section] 'The Show,' " Zylstra said. "We watched the game Saturday when they played UNLV, and that place was rocking. It was a little different [vs. USD]. We had to find the energy within ourselves."

Welcome to the WCC, BYU.

You're not in the good ol' Mountain West anymore. You're not the hated bunch — not yet, anyway — that played in front of hostile, often sold-out arenas from Albuquerque to San Diego and most places in between. Monday, USD even had to import some manufactured hostility with its students not yet back from the holiday break.

A couple band members — the guys wearing bicycle helmets, if you were there or caught the game on BYUtv — told me they were actually SDSU students. That explained why they were familiar with most of BYU's players and were able to direct a steady stream of personal insults at the Cougars.

Tame stuff, really, in relation to Utah State's vitriol, but at least they were heard, and not just because they were within 10 feet of BYU's bench. It was so quiet in the pavilion at times that their little back-and-forth with teenage girls cheering for BYU could be heard in every corner of the gym.

Yes, gym.

Sure, as Zylstra pointed out, the Cougars will face some really hostile crowds in the WCC. Gonzaga's 6,000-seat arena will be jammed and rowdy on Feb. 23, and St. Mary's place got loud back on Dec. 29 when the Gaels handled the Cougars 98-82.

But it is just not the same. The never-ending howling at the Thomas & Mack seems like a world away, the antics of Snake and his cohorts in The Pit part of another universe.

Will it matter?

That question won't be answered until NCAA Tournament bids are handed out, but surely that epic battle last year at Viejas, Brandon Davies' last game as a sophomore, prepared the 2011 Cougars for the Big Dance much more than Monday's game.

"For us and for our team, we just focus on the challenge at hand," BYU's Rose said with a wry smile when he was reminded of those monumental matchups with the Aztecs last season by a San Diego reporter. "We have probably five or six of these guys that have never played over there [at Viejas]. So that's kind of the direction we are in."

Cougar seniors Charles Abouo and Noah Hartsock said it's not a huge deal after playing in front of only 3,073 at Loyola Marymount the other day, repeating Rose's mantra that a win is a win. But there's no debating that the stage is different, and has a much dimmer spotlight.

"At the end of the day, it is just fun playing ball," Abouo said. "As a senior, you just have to have fun playing, regardless of where you play."

Or what you hear coming from the stands.

Twitter: @drewjay —

Crowds at BYU's six WCC games

Date Opponent Venue Crowd/Cap.

Dec. 29 St. Mary's McKeon Pavilion 3,500/3,500

Dec. 31 San Diego Marriott Center 16,369/22,700

Jan. 5 L. Marymount Gersten Pavilion 3,073/4,156

Jan. 7 San Francisco Marriott Center 14,823/22,700

Jan. 14 Santa Clara Marriott Center 16,116/22,700

Jan. 16 San Diego Jenny Craig Pav. 3,204/5,100