Since posting a 2-1 record in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational on Nov. 25-27, the BYU men’s basketball team has gotten quite comfortable playing close to home.
In what can only be described as a truly quirky schedule, the Cougars have played seven games since then, all in the state of Utah. BYU had home games against Nevada, Weber State, Oral Roberts and Loyola Marymount (all victories), lost in overtime at Utah and beat UNLV and Utah State at neutral site games in Salt Lake City.
When the Cougars take the floor on Thursday for a 9 p.m. MT ESPN2 meeting at Saint Mary’s, it will be the first time the team has left the state since before Thanksgiving.
“How crazy is that?” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “It’s weird because we haven’t left the state even though we haven’t had that many home games. But there’s nothing better than going into a great program’s gym and finding a way to come away with a win. It’s one of the greatest feelings in this game and we have a chance to do that now.”
BYU is 1-2 in true road games this season, with losses at Utah and Boise State and a last-second victory at Houston. The Cougars are ranked No. 30 overall as of Wednesday in the Pomeroy Rankings and No. 51 in adjusted strength of schedule.
What’s most important to Pope is how much he’s learned about his team by playing a variety of opponents.
“I think that what a tough schedule does is it exposes the weaknesses you have,” Pope said. “We’ve had a tough enough schedule that we’ve had so many different things exposed multiple times where you have to come back to the drawing board to work on that thing some more. Hopefully, through the course of that process you end up plugging more holes and finding more answers than you would if played Saint Katherine’s — which is great program — 13 times. If you do that you’re not going to be forced to address the issues that can come back to bite you.”
Saint Mary’s (1-1 WCC, 14-3 overall) presents a very unique challenge in a lot of ways. The Gaels motion offense is very comfortable running the shot clock down to the final seconds. They have an elite scorer in Jordan Ford (21.6 points per game) and lead the country in 3-point percentage (43 percent). Junior forward Malik Fitts (15.8 ppg) is a match-up problem for the Cougars and junior Tommy Kuhse (3.8 assists per game) is one of those frustrating Saint Mary’s point guards who can keep him dribble alive indefinitely until he finds an open shooter.
“Every single time I’ve been in any interaction with this Saint Mary’s program they are so physical and so tough,” Pope said. “What’s surprising is it’s not readily apparent on film. Then you match up against them and get flung all over floor, beat up and bruised up. For me the No. 1 thing is how much fight and toughness and composure we have to have. And against a Saint Mary’s team you’d better execute. They are not going to make mistakes and they are not going to hurt themselves.”
BYU has lost five straight games to Saint Mary’s in at University Credit Union Pavilion (formerly McKeon Pavilion) since a victory in 2014. The Gaels are 8-1 at home this year, with the one loss a head scratcher to Big South opponent Winthrop on Nov. 11.
As a group, BYU’s seven seniors — TJ Haws, Zach Seljaas, Jake Toolson, Dalton Nixon, Yoeli Childs, Evan Troy and Taylor Maughan — are all looking for their first win in Moraga.
“It’s a very small gym but it’s extremely loud,” Haws said. “They pack that thing out. They have great fans who show out for every game. It’s small but doesn’t feel that small. As seniors, we’ve all been through it before. We know what it takes to win on the road. With that experience, I think it’s going to help us a lot, especially with this first (WCC road) game. This place is tough to play at but I’m really excited to have one more chance at this thing and I think we will come out on top.”
Saint Mary’s is coming off a stunning 107-99 four-overtime loss at Pacific.
“That’s going to make them play harder,” Pope said. “They’re going to be really angry, I’m sure. They’ve had to sit on that for four days. I’m sure the last four days of practice have been fist fights. That program hasn’t become what it is because they don’t know how to respond to setbacks.”
BYU (1-0, 12-4) is on a six-game winning streak after opening WCC play at home with a 63-38 win against Loyola Marymount. Childs — the Cougars’ leading scorer and rebounder — left practice on Tuesday with a trainer after injuring his index finger on his shooting (right) hand. Pope said he thought Childs would be fine.
Seljaas said the players are well aware of the long streak of losing in Moraga.
“We put it as a goal, we don’t want to keep that going,” he said. “We want to go up there and end that streak and be able to win at Saint Mary’s.”