Next season, this will be one of the marquee conference games in the West Coast Conference. This season, however, No. 23 BYU and Saint Mary's will vie for the South Padre Invitational title in Texas on Saturday.
Due to the constantly changing landscape of the Football Bowl Subdivision, BYU (5-0) opted to leave the Mountain West Conference and become an independent for football in September. Its remaining sports programs, most notably men's basketball, will join the WCC starting in the 2011-12 season.
The addition of the Cougars to a conference that already features perennial NCAA tournament participant Gonzaga and an emerging power in the Gaels (6-0), a team that reached the round of 16 last season, has the potential to challenge the newly expanded Pac-10 as the top basketball conference in the West.
In the present, both teams have been impressive en route to the championship game of this tournament. BYU rallied from 10 points down in the second half against South Florida on Friday and advanced 77-75 in double-overtime on Noah Hartsock's basket at the buzzer.
Star guard Jimmer Fredette scored 32 points, but it was Jackson Emery's five 3-pointers that gave the Cougars a needed lift and another chance to bolster their non-conference resume.
"Tonight was a real gut check," coach Dave Rose said. "These games are really hard on you when you lose because guys will say, 'If I had made one more play' or this or that. But when you win a game like this, I think it can really help your team come together and hopefully that is what this win will do."
Rose has the Cougars in fine early season form as they seek a fifth consecutive NCAA tournament berth, and Fredette - a preseason All-American - has averaged 24.6 points on 48.3 percent shooting, including 42.5 percent from 3-point range. BYU has averaged 86.6 points and outrebounded opponents by 6.8 per game.
Saint Mary's sustained the momentum of its blowout home wins in the first two rounds of this tournament Saturday by routing Texas Tech 88-68. Tim Williams came off the bench to total 20 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double this season as the Gaels shot 71 percent in the first half en route to a 47-23 halftime lead.
Coach Randy Bennett has gone to a more balanced approach offensively to compensate for the 32.0 points per game lost by big men Omar Samhan and Ben Allen graduating. Mickey McConnell is one of five players averaging in double figures, scoring a team-high 14.8 points per game.
Despite losing the 6-foot-11 Samhan and Allen, the Gaels are outrebounding opponents by 14.0 per game (40.7-26.7). The 6-9 Williams is averaging a team-high 8.5 boards.
BYU leads the all-time series 6-2, but Saint Mary's rolled to a 72-51 victory Jan. 4, 2005, in the most recent meeting.