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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Q&A: Beat writer discusses BYU’s defensive improvement, impact of newcomers and keys vs. No. 2 Gonzaga

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 11, 2022

Gonzaga's Drew Timme maneuvers underneath the basket against BYU's Caleb Lohner in the Zags' victory in the WCC Tournament title game last March in Las Vegas.  (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga's Drew Timme maneuvers underneath the basket against BYU's Caleb Lohner in the Zags' victory in the WCC Tournament title game last March in Las Vegas. (Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review)

Gonzaga-BYU is always a circle-the-date game on the West Coast Conference basketball schedule whether they clash in Spokane or Provo, Utah. Or Las Vegas, at the conference tournament.

Jeff Call has covered the entertaining series as BYU’s beat writer at the Deseret News, where he’s been employed since 1997. Call will be on hand when No. 2 Gonzaga (12-2, 1-0 WCC) and BYU (14-3, 2-0) tangle Thursday at the McCarthey Athletic Center. We checked in with Call for a closer look at the Cougars, who are No. 29 in the NET rankings.

S-R: BYU has been known for its offensive prowess since joining the WCC, but its defense has been strong this season. The Cougars are giving up 63.1 points, in the running for the best since the 2008 team permitted 63.2. Why has the defense been so good?

JC: All season long, BYU has been winning games with its defense and rebounding. Defense has been a point of emphasis and the players have responded. They spend a lot of time during the week studying their scouting reports, communicating on the court, playing connected and closing out.

They’re confident that on most nights, when their 3-pointers aren’t falling, they can find ways to win because of their defense. The Cougars have some very good individual defenders, including reserve guard Spencer Johnson.

S-R: What has been the impact of newcomers Te’Jon Lucas, Fousseyni Traore and Seneca Knight?

JC: Lucas gives BYU another experienced point guard, along with Alex Barcello, that can orchestrate the offense and score when he needs to score. Traore has been a revelation this season. The freshman from Mali is an outstanding rebounder and, with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, plays much bigger than his 6-6 frame. Early in the season, Knight struggled a little trying to figure out his role at the 3 but as the season goes on, he’s clearly more comfortable. He provides a spark for the Cougars off the bench.

All three have been instrumental in BYU’s ability to defend at a high level.

S-R: How has BYU adjusted after losing forward Gavin Baxter (knee) and post Richard Harward (complications from a heart issue) for the season?

JC: Going into the season, coach Mark Pope and his staff had two experienced big men in the 6-10 Harward and the 6-9 Baxter. Losing both has changed the complexion of the team and the way it plays. Pope has done a pretty remarkable job reinventing his team.

The Cougars are undersized, and less experienced, without Harward and Baxter but it’s increased the playing time, and accelerated the progression, of Traore and 6-9 freshman Atiki Ally Atiki, who has little basketball experience but is improving quickly. Ally Atiki played a key role in the win over Saint Mary’s, including three blocked shots. Even without Baxter and Harward, BYU’s ability to rebound has been impressive.

S-R: How important is it to the program and how was it received by the fan base with BYU set to join the Big 12 in 2023-24? Could the Cougars make the move next season?

JC: BYU fans are thrilled about joining the Big 12. It’s been something the fan base have dreamed about since the mid-1990s, though they realize that it’s going to be a huge challenge. I don’t see the Cougars leaving before 2023-24; they’re committed to playing one more season in the WCC after this year.

Yes, BYU fans are frustrated that the Cougars haven’t won a conference championship (regular season or tournament) in a decade in the WCC – in large part because of Gonzaga – but BYU will always be grateful that the WCC allowed BYU to join its ranks at a time of great uncertainty after the football program went independent in 2011.

S-R: What are the top two things on the Cougars’ scouting report?

JC: The Cougars understand that the Zags are loaded with talent again and that they very well could be the best team in the country. Drew Timme, Chet Holmgren, Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton and Andrew Nembhard are difficult matchups for BYU – and pretty much every other team in college basketball. The Cougars will focus, once again, on defense and rebounding.

It would help BYU to avoid a slow start, like it had last year in both Spokane and Provo. And it has had its struggles with turnovers at times this season. If the Cougars can hit 3s and take care of the ball, they could make the game competitive and possibly be in position to spring an upset, which has happened before – in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

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