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Adam Fondren, Deseret News
BYU guard Elijah Bryant looks to shoot against Saint Mary's in the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017.
The fact is, BYU had a game plan the last time around and stuck to it throughout the game and, for the most part, it worked. —Former BYU head coach Steve Cleveland

PROVO — What strategy-flips can be expected in the BYU-Saint Mary’s rematch Thursday?

The obvious: In California, the Cougars need to be better than they were in Provo during December's overtime loss to the Gaels if they are to knock off the WCC’s top team.

Former BYU-coach-turned-TV-analyst Steve Cleveland sees many changes Dave Rose could use this time around, but none are a silver bullet in stopping star Jock Landale, who averaged 29 points and 9.5 rebounds in two wins last week to earn his fourth WCC Player of the Week honors.

“The fact is, BYU had a game plan the last time around and stuck to it throughout the game and, for the most part, it worked,” said Cleveland. “Landale scored regularly like he does against almost everyone, but the Cougars guarded him straight up and tried to not let Saint Mary’s 3-point shooters beat them. With that plan, BYU had a chance to win on the last possession.”

BYU could choose two other options: A) Send help to defend Landale inside the key when he picks up his dribble and is committed to a shot; or B) Go all out and monster Landale with consistent help-pressure. Either option would be a different game plan.

“A key to whatever BYU does, however,” said Cleveland, “is to be patient. To be patient defensively and on offense. If you fall behind Saint Mary’s, it is very tough to make up the difference.”

The Cougars have been playing a little differently the past three games than the first time they faced Saint Mary’s. Rose has elected to go with a smaller lineup. And the momentum they’ve had, albeit against three lower-tier WCC teams, has worked. Rose may stick with it.

In BYU’s first game against Saint Mary’s, the Cougars started bigger, taller, heavier Luke Worthington alongside Yoeli Childs, but most recently they’ve gone with Zac Seljaas at Worthington’s spot.

“That smaller lineup has opened up lanes for BYU to attack with TJ Haws and Jahshire Hardnett,” said Cleveland. “It has improved spacing, enabled things not to get clogged up as much, and given Haws and Hardnett room to penetrate to make plays and score.”

Indeed, Haws and Hardnett are coming off their best games of the season in a win over San Diego, one of the best defensive teams in the country. In the past two games Haws is 10 of 18 (55 percent) from three, and 19 of 32 (59 percent) from the field. Once averaging around nine points a game, he averaged 16.3 points and 4.3 assists during the last two contests.

If BYU does go small, it puts a premium on keeping Childs out of foul trouble, said Cleveland.

“It will be interesting to see how they try and protect Childs, who will likely guard Landale. It’s a long game and they’ll have to watch Childs carefully because they’ll need him to score on the other end like he did effectively in the first game. They can bring in Worthington and Payton Dastrup to help, or in relief.”

The X-factor for the Cougars that they didn’t have in the first game against Saint Mary's is Dalton Nixon.

“The thing with Dalton is he can guard three or four positions,” said Cleveland. “He’s strong, smart and has a high basketball IQ. But what he also gives BYU is more fouls to use in defending. That’s a big deal.”

Nobody outside the team can say how many practice minutes Nixon has been getting since being cleared to play against San Diego on Saturday night. BYU has closed practices. In that game, his minutes were pretty sparse.

“Nixon has been gone a long time and he’ll need to get back into playing shape in practice and games. We’ll see,” said Cleveland.

The Cougars are two converted last-second shots away from being undefeated in WCC play and Cleveland believes they are more prepared to challenge Saint Mary’s this year than in years past.

“No question this is a much better defensive BYU team,” he said.

Kenpom.com gives the Cougars a 23 percent chance of beating Saint Mary’s Thursday night on the Gaels' home court.

That’s about right.

This is an uphill run on roller skates. Saint Mary’s has three fifth-year seniors and simply does not beat itself.

Randy Bennett has an established system and Cleveland doesn’t see him making many changes against the Cougars. “If they get their 3-point shots going at home, it is very tough for anyone to beat them,” he said.

The biggest thing the Cougars have going for them at the moment is confidence.

“They believe in what they’re doing,” said Cleveland. “They’ve bought in on defense and you can see it in the body language with players and coaches. Confidence is a very big deal. There is power in belief in yourself and this team believes they can win.”