PROVO — Overnight tent campers who’ve been outside the Marriott Center since last Thursday have it right.
Thursday night's showdown between Gonzaga and BYU is a big one.
It will define the Cougars' March.
How can coach Dave Rose negate, counter or reverse the impact of BYU’s bad losses to make the Cougars look more attractive as an NCAA bubble team?
Well, he can’t. Those defeats are all in the books.
But beating St. Mary’s last Saturday and finding success against ranked Gonzaga (23-4, 13-1) Thursday in the Marriott Center will definitely help the 18-10, 10-5 Cougars look more appealing. How much? That will be left for the computer nerds to spreadsheet and the actual committee to decide.
Rare is any Rose-coached team that loses five league games. This one has three to play.
That makes the game with the Zags so important.
“They dominate this conference,” said BYU forward Nate Austin. “Whenever they come in they expect to win.”
Yes, they do.
One thing is certain: If the Cougars are serious about making a late-season charge, it begins Thursday. Simply put, they must find a way to play championship defense. We saw a flash of it in the second half in that St. Mary’s game.
Most of this season, BYU’s defensive issues have been built around letting a random player have a career day from the 3-point line.
“No question,” said BYU sophomore Kyle Collinsworth, “We stop the 3 and we win.”
BYU players interviewed Wednesday after practice to a man believe there is some carryover this week from the St. Mary’s game.
If so, it will help.
Gonzaga is simply the most efficient offensive team in the league. Coach Mark Few has plenty of pieces and he knows how to use them.
Thursday, the Cougars face more than a random 3-point guy that may get hot. They’ll get a Gonzaga star more than capable of lighting up the Marriott Center. His name is Kevin Pangos.
Tyler Haws knows and respects Pangos, a guy he played against last summer when the BYU guard was a member of the U.S.' squad at the World University Games. Pangos was on the Canadian team. “He’s a great player,” said Haws.
Against BYU a few weeks ago in Spokane, Wash., Pangos made 9 of 14 field goals and was 6 of 10 from the 3-point line for 24 points. The Zags made 10 treys and Pangos had 60 percent of those. He’s made 71 from distance this year. Even running mate David Stockton hurt the Cougars, making 6 of 9 field goals, including some nice floaters inside the paint.
“We have to stay on our screens a little bit long and then hustle over to get to our guys. We have to be constantly moving as a defense,” said Austin.
From game to game, stopping the 3-pointer is different. It basically takes execution and effort, said Austin.
Gonzaga will attack BYU inside with center Przemek Karnowski and Sam Dower. Dower is more accurate (60 percent) as a shooter than St. Mary’s forward Brad Waldow and his own center, Karnowski. When defenses focus on Karnowski and Dower, the kick-out goes to Pangos, who's a surgeon.
There lies BYU’s big challenge in hosting No. 25 Gonzaga, a team that needs just one win in its final four games to clinch the WCC title.
The Cougars aren’t without help. Matt Carlino leads the league in steals and Kyle Collinsworth isn’t far behind.
But it will take a team effort and Collinsworth missed three days of practice this week to rest his knee. Reserve center Luke Worthington is nursing a separated shoulder — both holdover injuries from Saturday’s St Mary’s game.
Can Rose assemble enough firepower to get the job done?
“We are pretty good at home,” said Austin.
They’ll have to be.
If they are not, it will be almost impossible to sway the nerds and NCAA selection committee.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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