PROVO, Utah – The most unpredictable series annually on Gonzaga’s basketball schedule resumes Thursday.
The Zags have won four straight over BYU in front of packed houses of nearly 19,000 inside the spacious Marriott Center, where visitors have walked away on the losing end 88.7 percent of the time in coach Dave Rose’s 14 seasons.
Gonzaga has had more trouble with the Cougars at the McCarthey Athletic Center. The Zags have won 92.7 percent of home games since 2005, but underdog BYU teams pulled off three straight wins before GU’s 68-60 victory last season.
Go figure. The outcome of the latest installment to the rivalry will either push fourth-ranked Gonzaga (19-2, 6-0) closer to another West Coast Conference title or signal BYU (13-9, 5-2) as a serious challenger.
The Zags have won 10 straight and enter with a 27-game WCC road winning streak that dates back to a 70-67 loss to Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California, on Jan. 21, 2016.
“You have to amp up your toughness, take care of the ball, that’s of supreme importance, and obviously have your defense travel,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of the formula for winning on the road.
BYU, though, is a stiffer challenge than most of the previous 27. The Cougars are tough at home (10-1 this season) and the Marriott Center environment should rival Creighton’s CHI Health Center and North Carolina’s Dean Dome. GU went 1-1 inside those buildings in December.
“It’s unbelievable,” Zags senior point guard Josh Perkins said. “It’s definitely a game you circle on the schedule. The energy in there is incredible.”
The Cougars have two primary offensive threats in junior forward Yoeli Childs and junior point guard TJ Haws. Childs leads the conference in scoring (22.3) and rebounding (9.7). Haws is sixth in scoring (17.6), fourth in assists (5.2) and seventh in made 3-pointers (43).
“They have two guys like Haws and Childs that can go for 30 at any time,” Few said. “They’re just a really dangerous team. When they’re rolling, they’re probably as good as anybody we’ve faced.”
The Cougars, second in the WCC at 77.8 points per game, tend to run hot or cold and they’ve struggled to find a consistent third scorer. Guard Jahshire Hardnett handled that role most of the year at 10.9 points per game, but he’s missed the last five games with a hand injury. He’s expected to return Thursday and he’s regarded as the team’s top perimeter defender.
Junior guard Nick Emery averaged 16.3 and 13.1 points, respectively, in his first two seasons but sat out last year to deal with personal issues stemming from a divorce, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. He missed the first nine games this season as part of NCAA reinstatement conditions for receiving improper benefits from four BYU boosters.
Emery is averaging 5.2 points and has just two double-digit games. The 1,000-point career scorer is shooting 36 percent from the field, including 28.6 percent on 3-pointers.
Gonzaga has steamrolled WCC opponents by an average of 31 points. The Zags’ lone test was from San Francisco, which shares second with BYU. Gonzaga closed with a 17-2 run for a 96-83 road win over USF.
Gonzaga has trailed for just 4 minutes in six conference games.
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