PROVO — Down the right side of BYU’s basketball web page, this week, the countdown to Thursday’s BYU-Gonzaga basketball game inexorably ticked away. The suspense was building.
But a countdown has actually been ticking since the Cougars joined the West Coast Conference. When are they going to catch Gonzaga on the conference food chain?
It looked an eon or two away after the Cougars’ 93-63 loss. If they really want to be an every-year NCAA Tournament team, they should campaign for the Zags to join the Mountain West Conference. Gonzaga considered that move last spring.
But after obliterating the Cougars on Thursday, the Bulldogs are still in the WCC and BYU is still a long leap back from the top.
That’s not really BYU’s fault — it’s Gonzaga’s.
Whatever shortcomings the Cougars had coming into the game, readiness wasn’t one of them. The Cougars stole the ball on the first possession and went up 3-0. Then it was 17-5 for Gonzaga. The Cougars cut a 13-point deficit to five after some early substitutions, but soon the deficit was back up to 21 shortly before halftime.
It was ridiculously easy and surgically efficient.
This was a No. 4-ranked team against what BYU is: road kill on the road to the Final Four.
The pre-game opening prayer was followed by a night in which BYU shot only prayers.
Gonzaga made thousands of believers in Provo.
BYU shot just 27 percent for the first half and got out-rebounded by nine. No further evidence, your honor. Cougar coaches will explain what they didn’t do, what they could have done better, what they’ll do in the future.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga did what it does.
Thursday was a “sound system night,” i.e. when most of the noise was electronically generated. Not coincidentally, it reached its apex when the deficit was 31 points.
BYU crept within 14 in the second half, before Gonzaga called timeout with 13:04 to go. The Cougs never got closer.
Has it really been eight seasons since this march began? It’s understandable that when BYU first arrived, many believed the Cougars would overtake Gonzaga as the WCC’s best program. They were coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament and just bidding farewell to Jimmer Fredette, the National Player of the Year.
But today the Cougars are still calculating ways to catch the team that has risen to best in the West. How do the Cougs catch up to that?
Matching Gonzaga has been a tortuously slow process — and will likely continue. BYU is 6-16 all-time against the Zags. Of the times they’ve played when Gonzaga was ranked, BYU is 5-10.
Thursday was a good time for the Cougs to conjure their 2017 game in Spokane. That year they beat the No. 1 Bulldogs, 79-71, after losing three weeks earlier in Provo.
This year’s meeting didn’t look particularly promising for BYU. The Zags seem as serious as they’ve ever been about, yes, a national championship. Their only losses have been by three points to current No. 1 Tennessee and a 13-point loss at current No. 9 North Carolina. After that they rolled over 10 straight opponents before facing BYU. The Bulldogs won those 10 games by an average of 36 points.
BYU put on its best pre-game glare Thursday anyway. Winter nights in Provo aren’t as thrilling as the Jimmer days, but are not bad. A sizable crowd braved cold temperatures on the chance the Cougars could spring an upset. Besides the 2017 game, BYU won when the Zags were ranked No. 3 in 2015.
Whether the Cougars will ever fully overtake Gonzaga is sketchy. That was supposed to have happened long ago, considering BYU’s reach and resources. But the Provo school has adopted the role of permanent undersecretary, having never finished higher than second or lower than third in the conference.14 comments on this story
The Cougars never win the conference, but when it comes to top-half finishes, they’re as consistent as their Tuesday devotionals. Thursday wasn’t one of the more likely times for BYU to win. The Cougars trail Gonzaga in each of 21 major statistical factors listed on the comparison chart.
A win for BYU was as likely as a heat wave.
So Gonzaga continues to look like a team that belongs in a bigger conference. BYU can only wish. But after some revenue disbursement adjustments and concessions, the Zags stayed with the WCC.
As far as overtaking them in the conference’s power structure, let’s just say the Cougars need to put themselves on the clock.