For the second time in school history, Gonzaga is the top-ranked team in the country.
But that might be short lived as the Zags go on the road to face a BYU squad which has been absolutely dominant at home under head coach Dave Rose. Now in his 11th year, the Cougars sport an impressive 172-18 record inside the Marriott Center in what has become one of the loudest and toughest places to play in college basketball.
“That atmosphere is unreal,” Gonzaga sophomore guard Josh Perkins told the Spokesman-Review. “They really support BYU and they have a lot of great guys on that team. It’s one of the toughest atmospheres I’ve played in.”
The series has been a good one over the years with the Cougars having won at least once in five of the last six seasons. In 2015, BYU defeated then-No. 3 Gonzaga, 73-70, to snap the Zags’ 41-game home winning streak and also ended the program’s school-record 22-game winning streak.
So what’s Gonzaga’s record this year? Yup, you guessed it. The Zags are 22-0 and look to make history Thursday night as they go for their 23rd consecutive victory.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 30, 2017
While the Zags have looked unstoppable for much of the season, they’re beatable.
In three of its closest games this season — wins over then-No. 21 Iowa State (73-71), Florida (77-72) and then-No. 16 Arizona (69-62) — the Zags struggled with turnovers and had rebounding issues which gave opponents a number of second chance opportunities. Those areas are exactly what BYU will need to exploit to knock off the Zags. The Cougars are a turnover-prone team (14.0 per game), but are also rebounding machines (43.3 per game).
Last year, both program’s played three memorable games. BYU struck first with a 69-68 win on the road for its second consecutive victory inside McCarthey Athletic Center, which is also one of the hardest places to play in the country.
But the Zags returned the favor with a 71-68 victory at the Marriott Center a month later and then followed it up with an 88-84 win in the WCC semifinals.
At the same time, many pundits believe this year’s Gonzaga team is better than last year’s squad which made it to the Sweet 16. The Zags come into Thursday’s game as the top team in the country in scoring margin and are crushing opponents by 23.8 points per game. The team ranks ninth in the country in scoring defense (61.4) and 14th in scoring offense (85.2).
But that defense will face one of its biggest tests of the season as the Cougars come in averaging 82.6 points per game and have one of the most dominant post players in the country in Eric Mika. The sophomore is averaging nearly a double-double with 20.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
The Cougars love to shoot behind the arc and oftentimes “live and die by the three.” In a loss to Santa Clara on the road last week, the Cougars went 3-of-15 from downtown. But when they get hot, they are tough to stop.
BYU has also shown that it’s a different team at home than on the road this season and its record and stats reflect it. And while a majority of people have written BYU off Thursday after such an up-and-down year, never underestimate Dave Rose and his ability to prepare for big games. Nobody thought BYU would win in Spokane two years ago, yet the Cougars have gone in and won back-to-back games, which is a rarity inside “the Kennel.”
Yes, the Zags have a 25.4 percent chance of finishing the season undefeated according to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index (BPI), but we’ve seen a lot of strange things happen over the years between these two teams.
And with BYU (16-7, 7-3) sitting behind Saint Mary’s (19-2, 9-1) and Gonzaga (22-0, 10-0 WCC) in the WCC, the Cougars are certainly in must-win territory, especially if they want to earn an NCAA Tournament bid as an at-large team. With their backs against the wall, expect the Cougars to come out swinging.
Gonzaga is favored for a reason Thursday night, but don’t be surprised if the game is a lot closer than most people expect. And if the Cougars can stay hot, don’t be surprised to see the Cougars pull out another exciting last-second victory over the Zags.
Notes: The highest-ranked team to play in the Marriott Center came in 2013 when the Zags came away with a 70-65 win. The highest-ranked team to lose was San Diego State when Jimmer Fredette scored 43 points as the 9th-ranked Cougars took down the 4th-ranked Aztecs. … BYU is 0-4 all-time against No. 1 teams with all four games being played on a neutral floor.