PROVO — While BYU is coming off arguably its best win of the season — an impressive home victory last week against Saint Mary’s — a daunting challenge awaits.
The Cougars host No. 4 Gonzaga Thursday (9 p.m., MST, ESPN2). BYU hasn’t beaten the Zags at the Marriott Center since 2014.
Can that triumph over the Gaels help the Cougars' confidence and momentum going into this game?
“It was a big win for our guys. The fact that it comes on a bye week, it worries you a little bit because you spend the whole week feeling good,” said coach Dave Rose. “Sometimes an edge can come from maybe being a little bit stunned or hurt. But I’ll go with the confidence issue every time. We’ve played well in here and we’ll obviously need to play well in here (Thursday). But I’m looking forward to the game and the competition. We’ll see how it goes.”
Last year, Gonzaga thumped the Cougars at the Marriott Center, 79-65. This is another deep, talented and athletic Zags squad that spent some time earlier this season ranked No. 1.
In fact, this might be Gonzaga’s best team ever and it’s one of the best teams ever to play at the Marriott Center. The Zags have beaten No. 2 Duke this season and their only two losses came against top-ranked Tennessee and No. 9 North Carolina.
How does this Gonzaga (19-2, 6-0) team compare to previous versions?
“They’re similar in the fact that they’re really good. They’re always really good. They’re a little bit different from their past teams,” said forward Yoeli Childs. “They’re a little bit smaller, very athletic, very long. But they do what Gonzaga always does — they have very good individual talent, they play well together, they play with a good pace. It’s a very similar Gonzaga team to the one we’ve played the last two years.”
“It’s a better defensive team than maybe (coach Mark Few has) had the last couple of years,” Rose said. “I think it all starts with (guard) Josh Perkins. He’s a four-year guy. It seems like he’s been around forever. The Final Four experience that he has ... not only is he long and the ability to cover a lot of ground but he’s got these guys playing together and playing hard.
"It doesn’t really matter what the lineup is. This group, they don’t seem to change much when they sub," Rose continued. "They either stay the same or maybe even get a little better because with (Killian) Tillie, it makes it a little more difficult to guard the perimeter. They protect the rim really well. It’s hard to penetrate and get to the rim. They don’t foul a lot so it’s hard to get to the (free throw) line.”
Forward Rui Hachimura averages a team-high 19.9 points and 6.2 rebounds. San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke gives Gonzaga a dynamic presence in the post, averaging 16.3 points and 7.7 rebounds.
“He’s an elite shot-blocker,” Childs said of Clarke. “He's an explosive athlete, one of the best shot-blockers in the country. It will be really fun to go up against a guy like that. I’ll see what moves work and what moves don’t. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I can’t wait.”
Perkins averages 11 points and 6.6 assists per game while guard Zach Norvell Jr. averages 15.7 points and 3.4 assists.
The Zags’ last win was a 98-39 dismantling of Santa Clara on the road a week ago.
"They’re 6-0 in league and they're beating teams by 30-plus (points),” Rose said. “That’s pretty impressive. You have to be a good defensive team to do stuff like that."
BYU guard TJ Haws was part of the Cougar team that upset then-No.1 Gonzaga two years ago in Spokane, spoiling the Zags’ perfect season in the regular-season finale.
“I thought we went into that game and laid it all out on the floor,” Haws recalled. “I thought we were ready to go and we played with nothing to lose. We played loose and free and that game was a lot of fun for us. We shot the ball well and we played really well as a team. To beat these guys, everyone’s going to have to step up, which happened my freshman year. Hopefully, everyone does their job and we can get a win.”
Rose said that guard Jahshire Hardnett, who has been sidelined the past five games with a hand injury, will be available Thursday.
“He will play. I don’t know how much he’ll play but he’ll play,” Rose said. “He had a really good practice (Tuesday) and (Wednesday). He was a little bit sore. But he was able to get through it. He wants to play and I want him to play. We’ll get him out there and see how he can do.”
One thing the Cougars have going for them — they’re 10-1 at home this season.7 comments on this story
“You can really feel the difference when you play at home. The energy is wild. It really helps you have a lot of momentum. When you score, it leads to a stop,” Haws said. “And when you get a stop, it leads to a score. When this place gets loud, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever really experienced. I’m excited for it to be a high-energy crowd.”
“Our student section has been unbelievable in some of these games,” Childs said. “I expect nothing but a packed house. It’s going to be a lot of fun playing in front of those guys. Hopefully, we can go out and make them proud.”
No. 4 Gonzaga (19-2, 6-0) at BYU (13-9, 5-2)
Thursday, 9 p.m., MST
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM