BYU guard Kyle Collinsworth (31) (left) and teammate BYU forward Noah Hartsock (34) defend Gonzaga center Robert Sacre (00) as BYU and Gonzaga play Saturday, March 19, 2011 in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at the Pepsi Center in Denver Colorado.

PROVO — Last March, BYU defeated Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 30 years.

Nearly one year later, the two teams collide again — and for the first time ever at the Marriott Center — as the Cougars host the No. 24 Bulldogs Thursday night (9 p.m., MST, ESPN2).

Once again, there's plenty at stake.

While this showdown lost some of its luster after BYU fell at home to No. 18 Saint Mary's last Saturday, it looms large when it comes to the Cougars' NCAA Tournament hopes.

Coach Dave Rose is optimistic about the outlook for the rest of the season.

"History will tell you that our teams get better in February into March," he said. "Right now, this team has that opportunity. We'll see if they can take advantage of it."

Certainly, BYU's streak of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances is in jeopardy.

"The most important thing is to handle February the way we've always handled February," Rose said. "That's trying to get better day-to-day. With every loss comes kind of renewed urgency."

According to this week's NCAA RPI Report, Saint Mary's ranks No. 20, Gonzaga is No. 21 and BYU is No. 48.

"We're on that bubble, but we've just got to take care of our own business right now," said senior forward Noah Hartsock. "We'll have a lot of opportunities in these next few weeks before the West Coast Conference Tournament to get back to playing the way we have been."

The Cougars are looking to snap a two-game homecourt losing streak, including a stunning setback to Loyola Marymount two weeks ago.

Tonight's matchup is the first of two regular-season games between the Cougars and Bulldogs. BYU visits Gonzaga on Feb. 23.

"It's a big deal, not only because they're a big-name team, but because we're coming off a loss. We don't lose two in a row (at home) very often. It's up to us to make sure it doesn't happen," said forward Brandon Davies. "We're all focused on this one game coming up. We can't afford to look too far ahead into anything until we get this win. We don't have any room for error at this point."

When BYU announced it was joining the WCC, everyone immediately anticipated an intriguing rivalry between the Cougars and Gonzaga, which has won a share of 11 consecutive WCC regular-season championships.

That rivalry got a jumpstart last March on a big stage at the Pepsi Center in Denver, when Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery helped lead the Cougars to a huge 89-67 victory that propelled the Cougars into the Sweet 16.

The Bulldogs will be looking to avenge that painful setback.

"Oh, definitely. That was a big game last year and we were fortunate enough to win," said senior Charles Abouo. "I think they'll come in here with a lot of energy. It won't be anything different than what we've seen. Teams have come in here and played with a chip on their shoulder. They'll do the same thing and they're a really good team. We're going to have to respond to that challenge."

Davies did not play in last year's contest because he was serving a suspension. But he knows that just like a year ago, there's much on the line in this game.

"We'll get up to play each other. You know they're going to come in here fired up wanting to play us," Davies said. "Us the same way, because they're in the same conference and they're in the way of what we want to accomplish as a team."

Hartsock said BYU-Gonzaga is a rivalry-in-embryo. "I think so just because of the way the game went last time. We won and got to the Sweet 16. I'm sure they'll come out with an edge. I think it will be a great rivalry that will build up for the next couple of years."

Gonzaga is led by freshman guard Kevin Pangos, who averages 13.3 points per game. The Bulldogs are also strong in the front court, with forward Elias Harris (13.7 ppg) and center Robert Sacre (11.6 ppg).

The Cougars are mired in an abysmal 3-point shooting slump, having made just 11 of their last 73 attempts from 3-point territory. That's something BYU must fix in a hurry.

"Right now we're not shooting the ball as well as we have other times during the year," Rose said. "And it's not just one guy. It's two or three guys that are struggling. We need to get confident and start hitting shots. I'm really proud of the fact that we've found a way to win a couple of games mired in a tough offensive slump. We'll keep pushing forward and hopefully we can keep getting better each day."

Can the Cougars make a big push toward the NCAA Tournament in the last month of the season?

"We're not worried. We still have a lot of confidence in our team," Abouo said. "But we have to change some things right away. We definitely have to play better. As players, we have to do a better job out there on the court — make more shots and get more stops. It's really on us. This is a big game and there are big games left to play."

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