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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Top-ranked Gonzaga takes on WCC challenger BYU in rescheduled clash

Jan. 6, 2021 Updated Wed., Jan. 6, 2021 at 9:47 p.m.

BYU coach Mark Pope expressed his displeasure when host Gonzaga pulled away during a January 2019 game.  (By Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
BYU coach Mark Pope expressed his displeasure when host Gonzaga pulled away during a January 2019 game. (By Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review) Buy this photo

An unprecedented college basketball season is just six weeks old and the latest scheduling twist brings Gonzaga and BYU together a month sooner than expected.

The two West Coast Conference powers agreed to play Thursday night at the McCarthey Athletic Center because their scheduled opponents are dealing with COVID-19 related issues. Gonzaga and BYU tip at 5:30 on ESPN, replacing the canceled UConn-Baylor women’s game on the network.

Gonzaga and BYU have been adept at dealing with schedule interruptions that have become commonplace. The Zags twice played back-to-back home games and added West Virginia and Virginia to replace canceled contests with Tennessee and Baylor.

No. 1 Gonzaga’s fast start, even with a 17-day gap between games due to COVID concerns, has spurred discussion about the possibility of an unbeaten season. This is just the second time Gonzaga has entered conference play with an unbeaten record. GU was 12-0 in 2017 and went on to win its first 29 games before losing to BYU in the regular-season finale.

BYU (9-2) hasn’t played since a Dec. 23 win over Weber State. The Cougars’ first three conference games were postponed before the Gonzaga matchup was arranged, assisted in part by discussions between GU coach Mark Few and BYU counterpart Mark Pope.

“When everything else fails, the one coach and program in America that you know is going to be like, ‘Bring it, man, we’re not scared,’ is the Zags,” Pope said Tuesday on his TV show on BYUtv. “I couldn’t love them more right now just for the fact that they’re like, ‘Let’s play.’ We desperately want to play and they desperately want to play.”

It remains to be seen how the Cougars will play after two weeks between games. They posted their best win, 72-62 over then No. 18 San Diego State, after their longest stretch previously between games (five days). Gonzaga (10-0, 1-0 WCC) came off its COVID pause and handled No. 3 Iowa 99-88 on Dec. 19.

BYU snapped a six-game losing streak in the series with a 91-78 victory in Provo, Utah, last February. The Cougars lost seniors TJ Haws, Jake Toolson and Yoeli Childs, but they’ve rebuilt around senior guard Alex Barcello and graduate transfers Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette.

Barcello paces the team in scoring (16.9 points), assists (4.8), minutes (31.3), made 3-pointers (29) and made free throws (23). He leads the WCC in 3-point accuracy (63%). Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert is second at 50.8%.

The 7-foot-3 Haarms averages 11 points, 4 rebounds and has swatted a conference-leading 18 shots. Haarms, Richard Harward (6-11, 255), Kolby Lee (6-9, 240) and Caleb Lohner (6-8, 230) give BYU sizable options against Gonzaga’s frontcourt led by Drew Timme and Anton Watson.

The 5-11 Averette, a transfer from Utah Valley, contributes 10.8 points, 3.0 assists and a team-high 10 steals.

The Cougars have multiple 3-point threats, but they’re shooting 36.1% after leading the nation at 42.2% last season. They average 78.9 points and make 47.8% from the field, both second in the conference to GU, which is tops nationally at 95.1 points and 55.4%.

“I’m super grateful to the Zags. I say that now,” Pope said on his TV show. “We’ll see how I feel Thursday night after the game.”

BYU, picked second behind Gonzaga in the WCC preseason coaches poll, is No. 51 in the NET rankings.

Former Gonzaga guard Jesse Wade, sidelined last season with a knee injury, has played 31 minutes in four games for the Cougars. Wade saw limited minutes for the Zags in 2018 before sitting out 2019 under NCAA transfer rules.

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