BYU lost to Gonzaga 84-69 at the McCarthey Center in Spokane, Wash., Saturday night, and it didn't come as a surprise.
While the road team had little chance to win the game, however, it doesn’t mean the contest had no value for the visitors. If the Cougars were paying attention, there was a lot they could learn from their hosts. BYU got an opportunity to see — up close and personal — what it should aspire to be.
Gonzaga is BYU — with focus and a plan. Gonzaga doesn’t have better individual musicians in its orchestra, it has better direction and a clearer vision. If the BYU and Gonzaga players simultaneously executed a full range of individual basketball drills on opposite ends of the court, they would look almost identical.
When you put those same players on the court together and have them engage in a five-on-five game of team basketball, however, the Bulldogs generally made the game appear much easier and smoother than the Cougars. Saturday night inside the McCarthey Center, this was manifest in myriad ways.
The Bulldogs moved and attacked as a team and that allowed them them to regularly find open shots from wherever they wanted them versus a scrambling, disoriented BYU defense. When the Cougars had the ball they mostly relied on individual players making individual plays against a more focused and organized Gonzaga defense.
The Cougars played extremely hard, which allowed them to stay in the game for quite a while. They trailed just 56-52 with 11 minutes left. As the game wore on, however, and legs got heavy, the Bulldogs’ superior sense of identity and execution won out.
BYU would have needed special individual performances from one or two of its players in addition to off nights from one or two of Gonzaga’s best players to win Saturday night on the road.
That didn’t happen, but Cougar fans can hope the BYU coaching staff and players learned something from the Bulldogs while taking a beating.
Here are the grades for each BYU position group and other aspects of the game.
Nate Gagon is a published sports, music, and creative writer. He is also a wholehearted father, grateful husband and ardent student of life. He shoots roughly 94% from the free throw line and can be reached at: email@example.com or @nategagon.
BYU’s guards had just seven assists in 126 combined minutes on the court. Gonzaga’s point guard, alone, had seven assists in 34 minutes. Sure, that point guard was the son of the planet’s all-time NBA assist leader John Stockton, but even then one guard from one team shouldn’t match six guards from the other team in assists.
All told, the Bulldogs’ guards had 20 assists to just two turnovers, compared to the Cougars’ guards with a negative ratio of seven to nine.
Gonzaga's guards also had six steals while BYU's had just one. This was not because Gonzaga’s guards tried harder or because its individuals are better at stealing the basketball, rather it was because the Bulldogs were strategically a step ahead of BYU on both ends of the floor.
Gonzaga’s guards made 21-of-36 shots from the field (58.3 percent) and 10-of-22 from behind the arc (45.5 percent). BYU’s guards made 17-of-44 shots from the field (38.6 percent) and 2-of-11 from behind the arc (18.2 percent). This discrepancy did not have nearly as much to do with individual shooting ability as it did with the vast amount of empty space Gonzaga generally enjoyed between its shooters and the BYU defenders as well as the lack of shooting space the BYU players were able to strategically create for each other on offense.
If, after playing the Bulldogs, the Cougar guards felt like they needed more help from their coaches, they would be justified in those feelings. The effort from the backcourt players was there, which makes their grade respectable.
The BYU post players had a larger presence in the game versus Gonzaga than they have in most games this season.
Eric Mika, Nate Austin and Josh Sharp combined for 14 shot attempts — nearly 25 percent of the total shots for the Cougars. While that number may seem low, it is actually quite high for the Cougars this season.
Of those 14 attempts, the big guys connected on nine of them. They also outrebounded the Gonzaga frontcourt, 17-7, and had just one turnover compared to four for the Bulldogs’ big guys.
OK, that’s the good news.
The bad news is BYU’s interior defense. The Cougars’ post players do not do anything well on defense. They don’t play good one-on-one defense, they don’t rotate effectively, they don’t have good instincts in cutting off drives and they don’t make up for it by blocking shots.
BYU’s interior defense is a big weakness. The lack of consistent direction and focus from the coaching staff does not help.
BYU has a good head coach. Dave Rose’s record speaks for itself. Yes, the Cougars have struggled in conference tournaments and in postseason play, and have underachieved at times during Rose’s tenure, but overall it's fairly safe to say just about every BYU fan is happy to have Rose at the helm.
Gonzaga’s head coach Mark Few is, at least at this point, on another level. He is an elite coach, and it’s amazing that the Gonzaga administration has been able to keep him at that small West Coast Conference institution for 15 years.
This year has been a struggle for Rose and the coaching staff in general. Saturday night’s game versus Gonzaga was an even bigger struggle. The players on the floor for the Cougars gave outstanding effort and actually played quite well individually for the most part.
The Cougars were so outmatched in terms of strategy and execution, however, that the visitors really didn’t stand a chance on Gonzaga’s home floor.
Rose has nearly this entire group coming back next season. The time to begin establishing an identity and focus for next season is now. The Cougars are unlikely to go to the NCAA Tournament this year, and even if they did it is unlikely they would advance far. If, however, Rose begins now to make adjustments with an eye to the future, this team has potential for a decent tournament run next season.
The Bulldogs are beatable because they simply don’t have the talent to overwhelm teams that can match them in coaching and execution. Like every basketball team, Gonzaga can also be beaten if its shots are not falling as they normally do at the same time a respectable opponent is making more than their normal share, which is exactly what happened when Gonzaga lost at Portland on Jan. 9.
When the Bulldogs are making shots like they were against BYU in the second half, however, they can play with anybody in college basketball.
Junior guard Kevin Pangos, who devastated the Cougars with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting (6-of-10 on 3-pointers) and seven assists with zero turnovers, is a legit star and a confident leader.
Gonzaga has eight players averaging at least seven points per game while shooting 51.2 percent as a team, including 42.3 percent from behind the arc.
The Bulldogs are not going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament like they were last season, but they just might advance further than the second round this time.
Against BYU Saturday night, Gonzaga was dominant in every aspect of the game except rebounding.