Gonzaga’s 86-69 win over BYU on Jan. 7 – the Zags led 23-2 early and by 32 near the midpoint of the second half – demonstrated the separation between the West Coast Conference’s top two teams.
Monday night’s rematch will show how much ground, if any, the Cougars have made up in the past month, not to mention it’s also the biggest hurdle left between Gonzaga and an unbeaten regular season.
If those things sound familiar, well, Gonzaga fans probably don’t need a refresher course on the 2017 season when BYU handed the Bulldogs their first loss, 79-71, in the regular-season finale. Even fresher in the minds of Zag players and faithful: BYU’s 91-78 victory last February over then-No. 2 Gonzaga in Provo.
Gonzaga and BYU should have full supplies of motivation for the 8 p.m. PT tip at the Marriott Center. The game was moved up three weeks because both teams had scheduled games postponed against opponents dealing with COVID-19 issues.
“BYU is fighting like crazy to stay in the NCAA (Tournament) hunt,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “They’ll give us, I’m sure, a heck of battle, just like Pacific did (in the Zags’ 76-58 win on Thursday).
“They play extremely hard, they have a good plan and do a lot of things offensively. We’re fortunate enough to have another day of prep to get ready.”
No. 1 Gonzaga (18-0, 9-0 WCC) hasn’t lost since its most recent trip to Provo, but it was out of sorts against Pacific until the final 10 minutes. BYU (15-4, 6-2) has won six of seven since getting thumped at the McCarthey Athletic Center, including a double-overtime home win against Pacific and a 105-60 road thrashing of Portland in its past two outings.
The Marriott Center was packed and rocking with 18,987 fans last February. That figure will probably be around 200 on Monday. BYU has limited attendance to families of players, coaches and staff, due to COVID-19 safety protocols.
Few and freshman point guard Jalen Suggs are looking forward to seeing some fans in the stands.
“I can’t wait to get in front of a crowd again,” Suggs said. “It’s at their place this time, we had a really good win last time we played them so I know they’re hyped up to play. We’re ready to get down there and bring it to them and be ready for a dogfight.”
“They’re going to be finally one of the places that does have fans,” Few said. “That’ll probably be more of a shock to the system than when we go down there and there’s 20,000. I think the guys will welcome the chance to play in front of fans.”
The teams have experienced changes since the first meeting. Gonzaga continues to put up video-game numbers, leading the nation in scoring (93.3), field-goal percentage (55.1) and 2-point percentage (64.8).
The Zags, second offensively in KenPom’s metrics, have made strides defensively and now rank No. 8 in defensive efficiency.
Gonzaga likely will be without reserve center Oumar Ballo (thumb), leaving fewer options against 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, 6-11 Richard Harward, 6-9 Kolby Lee and 6-8 Caleb Lohner, one of the biggest frontcourts in the country.
The Zags need Drew Timme (18.8 points), Anton Watson (7.8) and Corey Kispert (19.9) to be productive while avoiding foul trouble.
Gonzaga has dominated foes in paint points (52.1 to 29.3), but the margin was just 50-44 against BYU. GU stung the Cougars in transition and converting off turnovers.
“I’m super excited about (facing Gonzaga again), especially after we did not perform like us up there,” BYU coach Mark Pope told the Deseret News. “So much credit goes to the Zags for our poor performance but also some of it is on us.”
The Cougars will sport a different starting lineup. Athletic 6-6 wing Gideon George made his first start against Portland and put up 19 points and 13 points. He had 11 points and five boards against the Zags.
Lohner, a 6-8, 230-pound freshman, started for the first time in two months and had 11 points and six boards vs. the Pilots. He was effective against the Zags with 13 points, sharing team-high honors with Haarms.
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