Get ready to run: BYU men’s basketball expects quick pace at No. 2 Gonzaga
Last Saturday, while BYU was slogging its way to a 52-43 victory against Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga was racing to a 117-83 win against Pepperdine.
It’s no wonder Cougar coach Mark Pope said going from preparing for the Gaels to getting ready for the ‘Zags was a polar opposite.
BYU and No. 2 Gonzaga meet in Spokane on Thursday, an opportunity for the Cougars to test themselves against one of the country’s top teams.
“It’s a unique gift for us,” Pope said. “Nobody else in country gets to do this. In the last couple of years we’ve played them more than anyone else. You always want to play the best and they are the very best.”
The Cougars came out on top against Saint Mary’s by focusing on each defensive possession and enduring a very slow pace. Playing the ‘Zags is a very different experience.
Pope described a moment watching game video from the Pepperdine game.
“The ‘Zags are still running everybody to death,” Pope said. “On the second possession, 28 seconds into the game, they get a defensive rebound and have a 60-foot laser pass to a layup. (Pepperdine coach) Lorenzo Romar, they had like 10 days to prep for Gonzaga, you know he was telling those guys ‘we’ve got to get back in transition.’
“When you’re coaching players, you’re always trying to match up your words with their experience and understanding. Every single team that has played the Zags have spent their time preparing talking about transition defense.”
Gonzaga sent Jalen Suggs, Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi on to the pro ranks from last year’s team that was undefeated until losing in the national championship game to Baylor.
Returning for the ‘Zags is 6-foot-10 Drew Timme (16.8 ppg), one of the most efficient big men in the country who shoots 61% from the field. Freshman Chet Holmgren is a 7-footer who has the skills of a guard. He is a matchup nightmare and averages 13.4 points per game. The guard line of Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton and Andrew Nembhard is a talented as you will find in the country. The depth on the roster is the envy of college basketball.
Gonzaga (1-0 WCC, 12-2 overall) is shooting 52% from the field and averaging 87.9 points per game. Its only losses came against No. 5 Duke and No. 16 Alabama during a rigorous preseason schedule. The ‘Zags also own victories against No. 21 Texas, No. 3 UCLA and No. 19 Texas Tech.
Gonzaga has won 20 straight WCC games since losing to BYU in February of 2020 and have won 60 straight contests at home in the McCarthey Center.
The Cougars (2-0, 14-3) haven’t started conference play 2-0 since the 2016-17 season.
“I think its a pretty big test for us, especially at this point in the season,” BYU’s Caleb Lohner said. “We just played Saint Mary’s, now we’re going to play Gonzaga and then San Francisco. We’re going to play three legit basketball games. I think it’s going to be a huge test of where we are mentally as a team, our chemistry and how we play together and get through some of that adversity.
“Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the country and there are going to be times where we’re frustrated and things aren’t going our way. It’s going to tell a lot about who we are as a team in some of those times. Having these games right now, it’ll be a huge statement to help us track in a positive direction for the rest of the season.”
Lohner added: “Everyone hates Gonzaga, so it’s fun to go play them.”
Pope said the Cougars will need big games from their seniors to be successful in Spokane.
“We’re not winning a lot of games without Alex (Barcello) and Te’Jon (Lucas) being great,” he said. “They don’t have to score all the points or make all the plays but their presence has to be felt, no doubt about it. That’s really important for us.”
BYU has put an emphasis on transition defense this week in preparation for the ‘Zags relentless attack, trying to figure out a way to match their speed, pace and physicality.
“Saint Mary’s was our hardest game,” Pope said. “Before that, Pacific was our hardest game we’ve played all season. Gonzaga is now the hardest game we’ll play all season. We prepare hard for every game. We don’t know any other way to do it.”
Men’s College Basketball
BYU (2-0, 14-3) at No. 2 Gonzaga (1-0, 12-2)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MT
McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane
Radio: KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM, BYU Radio, Sirius XM 143/BYU radio app
Live stats: byucougars.com
The Word: Gonzaga leads the overall series 21-7. … The ‘Zags won three times last season (86-69 in Spokane, 82-71 in Provo and 88-78 in WCC Tourney championship game). … The Cougars won three straight in Spokane in 2015, 2016 and 2017. … BYU has lost the past four games in at the McCarthey Center by an average of 24.7 points per game.