Time for Gonzaga to switch gears.
Not in its mental approach to games or its level of play, but its pace. The Zags embrace open-court basketball, but it usually takes two to tango and several recent opponents preferred to drain the shot clock.
That shouldn’t be an issue with BYU, which runs at every opportunity and routinely scores in the 80s and 90s.
“They play with great tempo and we just got done playing some slow-down, grind-it-out, really low possession games when you look at Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara and San Diego,” said GU coach Mark Few, whose team beat those three by an average of 30 points.
“Those three play with anybody as far as slow pace of play,” Few added. “These guys don’t.”
Add in 19,000 noisy fans inside the Marriott Center, where BYU is 12-1 this season and fourth nationally with a 90.5-percent winning percentage since the 2005-06 season, and the Zags (22-0, 10-0 WCC) face a major challenge in their first outing as the nation’s No. 1 team.
The Cougars (16-7, 7-3) possess another high-octane offense at 82.6 points per game. They rank 22nd nationally in scoring offense, actually down from their last seven teams that ranked in the top 13.
Sophomore forward Eric Mika, sophomore guard Nick Emery and freshman guard TJ Haws, former teammates at Utah prep powerhouse Lone Peak High, supply most of the offense.
Mika is the headliner. He took over the WCC scoring lead from Pepperdine’s Lamond Murray, in part because the Zags limited Murray to 12 points last Saturday. The 6-foot-10 post leads the conference in scoring (20.8), rebounding (9.6) and blocks (46). He’s attempted 191 free throws, the most in the nation. He’s made 150, second most nationally.
Mika had a streak of seven straight double-doubles earlier this season.
Emery and Haws both average nearly 14 points per game and they’ve combined to make 103 3-pointers. Emery was slowed recently by a knee contusion but didn’t miss a start and continued his streak of at least one 3-pointer in 32 straight games.
Emery’s latest battle has been sickness. He sat out practice Wednesday.
“They take shots that every player wants to take,” Zags guard Josh Perkins of BYU’s green-light approach. “They have a lot of talented guys that can get going at any time. We have to do our job and not let it happen.”
That will require two things, Few said.
“We have to take great care of the ball, which we’ve been doing a great job of,” he said. “That’s one of the unsung heroes of how efficient we’ve been on offense. It’s not so much making all these shots, but we’ve taking exceptional care of the basketball.
“BYU is one of the most physical teams we play year in, year out, so matching that or beating that kind of effort is going to be huge.”
Gonzaga freshman forward Killian Tillie, who missed the last two games with a sprained ankle, has participated more in practices this week. He’ll likely test his ankle during warm-ups to determine his availability.
Dave Rose needs one win to reach 300 in his 12-year coaching career at BYU. He’s guided the Cougars to 11 consecutive 20-win seasons and eight NCAA tournament appearances.
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