Gonzaga expects ‘physical and wild’ test from BYU in final WCC game at Marriott Center
Jan. 11, 2023 Updated Wed., Jan. 11, 2023 at 8:12 p.m.
PROVO, Utah – There’s a good chance the programs link up again somewhere down the line, but Thursday’s game between Gonzaga and BYU closes an important chapter of a West Coast Conference rivalry that’s produced 11 years of compelling regular-season matchups and heated postseason showdowns.
With BYU off to the Big 12 next season, the Bulldogs (14-3, 3-0) will be paying a visit to the Marriott Center for the final time as a conference opponent when they face the Cougars (13-6, 3-1) in a nationally televised game at the Marriott Center.
That bit of knowledge won’t be lost on BYU’s crowd, nor will the Bulldogs’ national ranking since Mark Few’s team moved up to No. 8 in the Associated Press Top 25.
Thursday’s game is BYU’s first with students back on campus since the holiday break; the Cougars announced on Monday tickets were sold out.
“It’s one of the best environments we play in every year,” Few said Saturday after the Bulldogs edged Santa Clara in front of a capacity crowd at the Leavey Center.
“They’re playing better now and got it back in track, so I’m sure it’ll be 19,000 people and just like this. Physical and wild, and they’re all going to be like this.”
The Bulldogs may not have been equipped to handle the noise or hostility during their inaugural visit to BYU in February 2012, losing 83-73 in a game that saw GU commit 19 turnovers and shoot 15% from the 3-point line, but the Cougars’ homecourt advantage hasn’t been a player in many of the rivalry games since.
Gonzaga has won eight of the past 10 games at the Marriott Center. The Zags have won seven of the past eight in Provo and bring a 23-7 all-time record against BYU into Thursday’s game.
“The ROC’s awesome, man,” Bulldogs forward Drew Timme said, referring to BYU’s student section, known as the “Roar of the Cougar.” “It’s one of the best places to play and all their fans are psycho and crazy.
“It’s great. It’s a special place, I hope even though they’re leaving (the WCC) it’s a game that always continues to have a home-and-home, just because it is so fun to play in. It’ll be fun and there’s going to be no love lost between the two and that’s what makes it so special.”
Similar to Gonzaga’s past two WCC opponents, BYU has been vulnerable at times and formidable at others. Five of the Cougars’ losses came within the first 10 games of the season, but Mark Pope’s team has since reeled off wins in eight of nine games, including an upset of then-No. 21 Creighton. BYU’s only loss during that stretch came at Loyola Marymount.
The Cougars will be motivated to hand the Zags their first WCC loss and snap one of the country’s longest active win streaks – something San Francisco and Santa Clara nearly did last week in the Bay Area.
“They’ve been pretty dominant in our matchups, but we’ve had some big wins that are super important,” Pope said. “Over the last few years, we’ve both spent some time on the national stage and certainly they’ve been the leader of this conference, there’s no doubt. But it’s super fun. Those are the two venues in our league where you’re sold out and there’s a frenzy about it.
“On a personal level, coach Few’s been so generous to me and so kind. It’s a great game that we love so much and sometimes it’ll be madly frustrating.”
BYU’s offense has taken a dip since the Cougars lost guard Alex Barcello, a 16.8 points-per-game scorer last season. Pope’s team is averaging 66.7 points per game in conference play, but the Cougars have evened the scales with improved play on the defensive end.
Thursday’s game will pit Gonzaga’s league-leading offense (85.9 ppg) against a suffocating BYU defense that’s allowing a WCC-low 56.7 points per game.
“They’re not as long as they were last year for sure, but they’re really explosive. They’re shooting the ball at a really, really explosive clip,” Pope said of the Zags. “They’ve got some young guys that have grown up in the program that are becoming stars. Some different bodies, but the same problems.”
BYU experimented with a different starting five in a 68-48 win at San Diego, replacing junior forward Noah Waterman with junior guard Spencer Johnson. Pope didn’t put much stock in the change, telling reporters Tuesday the Cougars have “seven to eight” players capable of starting.
Gonzaga’s veteran frontcourt pairing of Timme (6-foot-10) and Anton Watson (6-8) will have a significant size advantage on Foussenyi Traore (6-6) and Gideon George (6-6), but BYU’s forward tandem poses a unique challenge with its strength and athletic play.
The Bulldogs had a massive advantage down low in two games against BYU last season, finishing plus-42 in paint points.
“ I mean, how many years does (Timme) have left?” Pope said. “Just go be a pro already, He’s been the face of that program for a decade, it seems like, and he’s one of the best players in the country.
“He does it his own way and he does it in a way that nobody has successfully figured out.”
Timme has not only been a focal point of WCC scouting reports but a top target for opposing fanbases.
The senior forward anticipates a fair amount of heckling Thursday, but acknowledged BYU’s chants will stay on the PG side of things due to the school’s association with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“At least there won’t be any cuss words from them,” Timme said.
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