SPOKANE, Wash. — Since the beginning of the season, the BYU basketball team has had its sights on a West Coast Conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth.
In order to reach those goals, the Cougars desperately need a marquee win.
BYU will have an opportunity to accomplish that feat when it visits No. 10 Gonzaga Thursday (9 p.m. MST, ESPN2) at the McCarthey Athletic Center, also known as "The Kennel."
The Cougars have lost to Florida State, Notre Dame, Iowa State, Baylor and Saint Mary's this season — games that could have enhanced their NCAA tournament profile. Instead, prestigious victories are lacking.
That's why Thursday's showdown with the Zags is so crucial.
"We know it's a big game for us," said guard Brock Zylstra. "The games that we've played against ranked teams, we haven't won any of those games. Going in there and winning is a big one for us. We need to get one of those wins under our belt. We're not necessarily looking at the (NCAA) tournament. We're just looking at trying to beat a team that's 10th in the country. We know if you beat a team like that, it's great to have on your resume."
Of course, pulling off an upset at Gonzaga will be a difficult challenge.
"We're going to have to give an extreme effort. We have to play really hard and really well," said coach Dave Rose. "Their size is an issue. Their depth is an issue. They have really good perimeter players and they can score. This is a really good basketball team. I think our guys are excited to play them."
Guard Tyler Haws said it's important for his team to be "playing at our pace and staying on attack for 40 minutes. There have been times this year when everyone's playing together and playing well. I feel like at those times, we can beat anyone. Hopefully we can put together a good 40 minutes."
"The thing we've been focusing on is rebounding, offensively and defensively," Zylstra said. "The games we have lost, we haven't done a very good job on the boards. Then just locking in and giving everything we have. This is one of those games where we have to play hard and play well."
The Zags are coming off a heartbreaking, one-point loss on a last-second shot at No. 9 Butler last Saturday.
"They're coming off a loss and they're going to be fired up," said BYU forward Brandon Davies. "But they were going to be regardless of winning or losing. That's what good teams do — they prepare themselves and get themselves ready to bounce back. It's up to us to make sure that doesn't happen."
BYU can feel Gonzaga's pain. One week ago, the Cougars suffered a painful defeat when Saint Mary's guard Matthew Dellavedova drained a 35-foot jumper at the buzzer.
"We know exactly what it feels like," Haws said. "They're going to come out ready to go and probably have a little bit of fire under them. But we're ready for that and we're excited."
BYU bounced back last Saturday with a 74-57 victory over San Diego.
"We just went through that and we were hungry to get a win," said guard Matt Carlino. "We just lost like that. It will be fun because they're going to want to get after us."
"The Kennel" is one of the toughest places to play in the country. Gonzaga has posted a 113-8 record at home since the arena opened in 2004. In WCC games, the Zags are 56-2 at home.
The Cougars have lost two in a row to Gonzaga, including an 11-point setback in Spokane last season.
The Zags are even better than they were a year ago, thanks to the addition of 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, a junior from Canada who redshirted last season. He's averaging 18 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
"We've got to make him take tough shots and earn everything," Haws said of Olynyk. "We've got to make it tough on him all night."
"Olynyk is the biggest difference for them," Zylstra said. "He's a big man that can shoot the ball, but he's rugged, and he can also score near the hoop."
Rose is impressed with Olynyk's size and skill level.
"He's a great perimeter shooter," Rose said. "What he really does well is track down balls really well. He has great timing and a good feel for rebounding his own miss and rebounding others and his ability to stretch the defense."
The Cougars will also have their hands full with forward Elias Harris (14.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg). Meanwhile, sophomore guard Kevin Pangos averages 12.1 points per game.
"He's a really good player," Carlino said of Pangos. "Last year, I didn't get to guard him. Hopefully this year I'll get to guard him a little bit more. It will be a fun matchup."
Cougars on the air
BYU (15-5, 5-1) at No. 10 Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0)
McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane, Wash.
9 p.m. MST
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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