OGDEN -- If this is indeed the University of Utah's final visit to the Dee Events Center, Weber State would rather roll up the Utes and haul them out than roll out the welcome mat.
When the Utes hit Pac-12 paydirt and moved up to a more prestigious neighborhood in the collegiate athletics landscape, they began signaling their intention to no longer schedule home-and-home series with the Utah States and Weber States of the world, er, state.
That brought Utah's 223-game rivalry with USU to a screeching halt as they did not meet for the first time since the 1944-45 season. Weber State has not played Utah as frequently, with the Utes holding a 26-13 advantage in the all-time series, but the Wildcats already had a contract with the U of U in hand to play in the Dee Events Center in 2011. That game tips off tonight at 7 p.m.
WSU athletics director Jerry Bovee hopes it won't be the last time.
"I would never say never," Bovee said. "We've seen how things change in collegiate athletics and I'd hate to think they'll never play in the Dee Events Center again."
Utah's athletics department has indicated a willingness to play Weber State at some point in the future in the Huntsman Center, but Utes and Wildcats do not have a current agreement yet to play again anywhere.
Weber State does have home-and-home agreements with BYU and Utah State, Bovee said.
With Utah struggling to a 3-8 record so far under first-year coach Larry Krystkowiak, including an exhibition loss to Division II school Adams State, Weber State (7-3) will be favored tonight, but 'Cats coach Randy Rahe isn't sold on the idea that Utah will be a pushover.
"They're a different team these last three games than they were before that," Rahe said. "They are starting to understand how they're going to play. They're playing with a lot of aggression; they're playing tough and physical. I watched the BYU game and they absolutely physically beat the heck out of BYU despite losing to the Cougars by 19 points.
Rahe, who was an assistant at the U of U from 2004-06, sees improvement in the Utes, who are on their first winning streak of the year with back-to-back victories over Idaho State and Portland.
"They're starting to find their stride," Rahe said. "You knew they were going to. Jiggy can play. He's as good a point guard as there is out there."
"Jiggy" is U of U senior Josh Watkins, who scored a career-high 26 points against Portland and leads the team with 16.7 points per game, second in the Pac-12.
Weber State point guard Damian Lillard, who has led the nation in scoring since Nov. 28 and now averages 25.7 points per game, isn't counting on coasting either.
"I've seen them play a few times," Lillard said. "People have said they aren't that good, but I've seen the last two games, coach Rahe talked about the last two games and they've been playing great so we can only go off of how they've been playing lately. They can come in here and beat us as far as I see it. We've got to be prepared as if it was any other team."
Utah has won nine of the last 10 meetings between the two schools; on the other hand, Weber State is 10-9 against Utah in games played in Ogden. The Wildcats also have the upper hand over the Utes this season in 15 out of 17 statistical categories.
Asked about the importance of in-state games, Lillard touched on a theme he mentioned before previous rivalry contests with Utah State and BYU.
"We're kind of like the smaller school of BYU, Utah State and Utah, so it's a bigger chip on our shoulder than anybody's. We're the smaller school, even though they might be having a down year, they probably still feel like, it's just Weber State. We feel like we want to go beat every team in the state because we're like the little brother, that's how they see it or a lot of people see it, so we feel like we've got something to prove."
Tonight marks game the final in-state contest of the season for the Wildcats, who beat Utah State at home, got thumped by BYU in Provo and easily overcame Southern Utah in the Dee Events Center.
* WSU NOTES: Weber State continues to adjust without the services of starting forwards Kyle Bullinger (elbow injury) and Frank "Mook" Otis (knee). Rahe said they are still rehabbing, but his best guess at their returns is three more weeks for Bullinger and three to four more for Otis. Sophomore center Kyle Tresnak was limited in WSU's win over Mayville State with a strained back.