SPOKANE, Wash. — Since last March, BYU and Gonzaga have met twice — in the NCAA Tournament at the Pepsi Center in Denver, and at the Marriott Center earlier this month.
Both times, the Cougars prevailed in relatively easy fashion.
The first win propelled BYU into the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years. The second gave the Cougars their most meaningful victory of the season, and came on the heels of a disappointing loss at home to Saint Mary's.
Thursday night (9 p.m. MST, ESPN2), BYU makes its first trip to the 6,000-seat McCarthey Center, nicknamed "The Kennel." The Bulldogs have posted a 102-7 record there since the facility opened in 2004.
"I hear it's crazy. But we'll definitely be ready for it," BYU's Charles Abouo said of playing at Gonzaga. "We love playing on the road. It'll be a much tougher test than the previous two times, on their home floor. It's definitely going to be a tough game for us."
And there's a lot at stake, with West Coast Conference Tournament and NCAA Tournament implications.
The Cougars are looking for a conference crown in their inaugural season in the league, while the 'Zags have won 11 consecutive regular-season WCC titles.
"It's a big game because it still keeps you in the hunt for a league championship and BYU is an NCAA Tournament team," Bulldog coach Mark Few told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
BYU (23-6, 11-3) and Gonzaga (21-5, 11-3) are tied for second place in the WCC standings, trailing league-leading Saint Mary's (12-2), and jockeying for seeding in the conference tournament in Las Vegas. The top two seeds will receive a bye into the semifinals of the WCC Tournament, which tips off next week.
Many NCAA Tournament prognosticators say that if the Cougars beat the Bulldogs, they will be a lock for an at-large spot in the Big Dance.
"We're really excited," said Cougar guard Matt Carlino. "This is crunch time now, going into the conference tournament."
In BYU's 83-73 victory over Gonzaga on Feb. 2 at the Marriott Center, the Cougars controlled the game most of the way, forcing 19 turnovers and recording 14 steals.
But BYU coach Dave Rose knows that Gonzaga is a much better team at The Kennel.
"You watch them play at home and you watch them play on the road, with the young guards that they have, they're a much different team at home — a lot more confident," Rose said. "I don't think we can count on the points we scored on turnovers here up there. I think it will be a fast-paced game. I believe they try to play faster at home than they do on the road. … I know our guys will be ready to play. Hopefully we'll play well."
In Provo, BYU outshot Gonzaga, 49 percent to 41 percent.
"They're a very good team. They didn't shoot their best (at the Marriott Center)," Abouo said. "They didn't get that good of a game from a lot of their players that are really capable. It's going to be a different challenge and we're going to have to do a good job responding to that challenge. It's going to be a different game."
In that meeting at the Marriott Center, freshman guard Kevin Pangos finished with just four points, going 2-for-6 from the field and 0-for-3 from 3-point range. Pangos, a 6-foot-1, 180-pound native of Newmarket, Ontario, averages 16.2 points per game at home, but just 10.2 points per game on the road. His shooting percentage is 49 percent at home, but dips to 39 percent on the road.
"I cherish the environment at home and I enjoy the away environment," Pangos told the Spokesman-Review. "It's a different routine to have to adjust to, just being on buses, in hotels and you don't have the same access to some of the things we do at home. That's a bit of a factor, but other than that the games just haven't panned out the way we wanted them to and I just haven't played as well."
For the Cougars, the big question is, will Noah Hartsock play?
The senior forward suffered a knee injury in last weekend's victory at Santa Clara, and Rose said Tuesday it will likely be a game-time decision. Hartsock notched a double-double against the Bulldogs in Provo, scoring 24 points and pulling down 14 rebounds.
With or without Hartsock, it's a big showdown with plenty on the line.
"It's going to be an exciting game for both teams. It's a game with a lot of implications on conference standings, and stuff like that. We're ready to go," Abouo said. "There's a lot riding on the game, but it's basketball. It's fun. That's why we come here, to play in these games. We've done a pretty good job the last couple of years of finishing well."
NOTES: Broadcaster Brent Musburger will work Thursday night's game on ESPN2. … BYU is riding a five-game winning streak and hasn't lost in the month of February. … The Cougars lead the all-time series with the Bulldogs, 2-1.
COUGARS ON THE AIR
BYU (23-6, 11-3)
at Gonzaga (21-5, 11-3)
Today, 9 p.m. MST
TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company