Brad Rock: BYU, Gonzaga in their own incredible universe

Published: Friday, Feb. 21 2014 5:37 p.m. MST

Brigham Young Cougars guard Anson Winder (20) celebrates his team's victory of No. 25 Gonzaga during NCAA basketball in Provo Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014. BYU won 73-65.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — Far from the power centers of college basketball, BYU and Gonzaga tipped off on Thursday night, just about the time the East Coast talk show hosts were getting comfortable. On one channel, there were clever monologues and celebrity guests. On another channel were the Cougars and Bulldogs, in a rivalry that arose almost overnight.

It might have qualified as a small conference non-event in some time zones. But when the game draws 20,000 fans, and with postseason berths on the line, these things matter in other places.

For the season, the Cougars are averaging nearly 16,000 fans a game — among the highest in the nation.

Not a big deal?

Try telling the guys on the front row with the blue top hats and painted faces at the Marriott Center.

“Our fans love it,” said athletics director Tom Holmoe.

For all intents and purposes, the game represented BYU’s best shot at securing an at-large bid to NCAA’s postseason gala. With Gonzaga having previously secured at least a tie for the conference crown, the onus was on the Cougars to seize the opportunity. Which they did, 73-65, thanks to some fine shooting by Matt Carlino down the stretch.

So naturally the game drew high interest among BYU fans. Students began camping out to get the best seats at midnight on Sunday. OK 12:01, just to be on the safe side of the Sabbath.

There were no restrictions whatsoever on coveting their neighbor’s tickets.

Total number of tents on the BYU property by sometime Monday: 60.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think Jimmermania was still in full force. In a way, it is. Jimmer Fredette launched a whole big-scale thing in recent years, but Tyler Haws — the nation’s No. 4 scorer — has kept it going.

Jimmermania may have moved on, but is anyone up for some Hawsomeness?

“If you have a good product,” said Holmoe, “people will come.”

This flies in the face of what is going on at numerous schools. There are a few traditional basketball places, but in many the game often orbits like an asteroid until tournament time. Administrators have been wringing their hands for several years over steep drops in attendance.

A Harris Poll conducted last month said only 3 percent of sports fans consider college basketball their favorite sport. That’s compared to 35 percent of fans that favor pro football. Baseball drew 14 percent, while college football drew 11 percent, auto racing 7 and the NBA 6 percent of the vote.

Three percent of fans are nuts about college basketball?

Every one of them must have been in the Marriott Center on Thursday.

This, of course, isn’t new territory for BYU. After the arena was built, it was in the nation’s top 10 in attendance for 25 years. Since 2008, it has again been top 25 every season. This year’s 15,473 average is only 500 below last year, when the Cougars were No. 13 in attendance.

BYU came into Thursday’s game having lost five straight to Gonzaga, including a 15-point loss in January.

All the better for BYU’s student section, Roar of Cougars, to arrive ready to rumble. The ROC’s game plan: annoy Gonzaga into losing.

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