During his coach’s show on Tuesday, BYU’s Mark Pope donned an “Any team, any time, any place” headband, ala Cougar quarterback Zach Wilson.
“You think I can pull this off wearing this during the game on Thursday?” Pope said with a laugh.
Why not? Any time BYU and Gonzaga get together on a basketball floor it’s an event. And in today’s college basketball environment, any time teams get to play is a cause for celebration.
Both the Cougars and Bulldogs lost Thursday games because of COVID-19 effects on their opponents but now the two programs are going to play each other.
No. 1 Gonzaga and BYU will meet on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. MT in an ESPN televised game, the first time the two teams will meet since the Cougars knocked off the second-ranked Bulldogs last February in the Marriott Center.
It was the last time Gonzaga lost a game.
“The Zags are the No. 1 team in the country for a reason,” BYU freshman Caleb Lohner told BYUtv. “They are well coached and they’ve got some players. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a fight and it will take our whole team fighting together. Every single one of our guys is ready and we’re looking forward to it.”
Pope said on his BYUtv coach’s show that he’s talked to as many as 20 teams during the past two weeks when Pepperdine, San Diego and Pacific all had to postpone games with the Cougars, trying to figure out a way to keep playing.
““When everything else fails, the one coach and program in America that you know is going to be like, ‘Bring it, man, we’re not scared,’ is the ‘Zags,” Pope said. “I couldn’t love them more right now just for the fact that they’re like, ‘Let’s play. Bring them up. We’ll lace ‘em up and go.’ We desperately want to play and they desperately want to play.”
Gonzaga is 10-0 and has four wins against Top 20 competition. The Zags have also become the first team to score 85 points or more in their first ten games since Arkansas in 1993-94.
“What they are doing right now is extraordinary,” Pope said. “Any time you talk about the Zags, and this year it’s times ten, is they are incredible in transition. They’re just unbelievable. Their pass-aheads, 1 through 5 can push it off the bounce.
“Their five starters are averaging 57% from the field over the course of the nonconference and they played four teams in the top 20. We’re so excited to go take a huge swing at this and see how we end up.”
BYU last played on Dec. 23 (an 87-79 victory against Weber State at Vivint SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City) and the 15-day gap between games has been difficult.
We’ve talked about it all year long that our biggest challenge is can we stay dialed in and focused and not distracted and not reach for that excuse of COVID when the hiccups come,” Pope said. “I’m super proud of our guys. It was a weird week with everything that went on but the guys stayed dialed in all week. One of our mantras is to get better every single day and hopefully we’ve been able to do that.
“It’s been emotionally taxing on the guys, just full of weirdness and unpredictability. Hopefully it will be a little more smooth sailing from here on.”
SCOUTING REPORTGonzaga has two elite scorers in 6-foot-10 Drew Timme and 6-7 swingman Corey Kispert. Both are averaging better than 20 points a game, Timme on the inside and Kispert from the 3-point line where he set a team record with nine triples in a game earlier this season.
Mark Few also has one of the most dynamic freshmen in the country in Jalen Suggs, who is being discussed as a lottery pick in the 2021 NBA draft.
BYU has had more success against the Zags than most. The Cougars beat Gonzaga three straight times in Spokane (2015, 2016 and 2017) under Dave Rose. The 2017 win was especially satisfying as the Zags were undefeated at the time.
Last year’s victory at the Marriott Center on Senior Night was pretty special night for BYU and its fans. It was also the last time the MC was full, as all the home games played there this year have been limited to family only.
Gonzaga’s home court, the McCarthey Center, has generally been a raucous place for opposing teams to play, in large part because of an active student section. But fans are not currently allowed in the arena.