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Gonzaga vs. BYU game preview: Conference play arrives in a big way

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It seems dumb to call this the biggest game of conference play so early in the season, but the fact of the matter is this is the biggest game of conference play.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

The holidays are over. The extended family has finally left the house, taking only half of the stuff they arrived with and leaving behind a trail of trash and wrapping paper. Normally, we have basketball to get us through these hard times, but unfortunately college kids are just kids too -- and they deserve a break.

Finally, basketball is back and it is back in a big way. The Gonzaga Bulldogs take on the BYU Cougars to open up conference play. There are a lot of people talking about Gonzaga running the WCC table, and we will know right off the bat if that is a possibility with a road game against BYU (definitely the hardest game for the rest of the season).

The Zags have dropped two of three at the Marriott Center since BYU joined the conference. Tyler Haws had an ankle injury, and not that we like to wish pain on anyone else, but it would've been nice if that ankle injury kept him out until next week. Alas, that isn't the case, and a slightly hobbled Haws-led Cougar team is ready to make a statement and pick up its signature win.

Meet the opponent

BYU Cougars, 10-3, KenPom #45

The discussion about beating BYU involves keeping Haws at normal-Earth levels. Haws averages a WCC-best 22.3 points per game and is doing it with a true shooting percentage of 62.2 percent. Usually, it seemed that the BYU offense came and went with Haws, but in a game against UMass, the Cougars found a way to win despite a rare down night from Haws.

Haws barely struggled to score four points in an overtime win against the Minutement. In his place, Anson Winder and Kyle Collinsworth came to the showing in a huge way. Winder is the name to get to know for this game. The senior guard has stepped up in a huge way so far this season and is second-best on the team with 14.2 points per game.

Junior guard Chase Fischer is the new name to the equation as well. He is a transfer from Wake Forest and coach Dave Rose has just told him to go absolutely bonkers from beyond the arc this season. Fischer chucks up close to eight three-point attempts per game and is second in the WCC in three-point field goals made.

The four factors

All numbers come courtesy of Ken Pomeroy.

Gonzaga BYU
eFG% 58.5 (6) 52.7 (53)
TO% 17.4 (50) 17.2 (45)
OR% 40.2 (11) 33.7 (101)
FTR 35.4 (229) 41.2 (101)
win index 65 35

What to watch out for

How does Gonzaga handle the pace?

In my mind, I've always thought of Gonzaga as a high-octane, fast paced team. To a certain degree, that is true. The Bulldogs can still run with the best of them, but they can't leg out a marathon with the best of them anymore. BYU, on the other hand, is one of the quickest teams in the nation. The Cougars average possession length is 14 seconds, which is the shortest in the nation.

The Cougars are going to force Gonzaga to run the ball. The difference between the two teams lies in this style. BYU has a great offense that fits this run-and-gun style perfectly. Gonzaga has a great offense that fits a more half-court style perfectly. Whoever gets uncomfortable first is the one that goes home with a loss.

How does the defense handle such a potent offense?

On paper, that is the big difference between the two teams. BYU and Gonzaga both have stellar offenses. BYU has an average defense and Gonzaga has a better than average defense. This will be the deciding factor in the game, if Gonzaga's defense is able to slow down BYU. There aren't too many chinks in the armor of BYU's offense, but they aren't invincible.

Kyle Collinsworth is in for a rough night. Gonzaga's defense has been stellar at stifiling pass lanes and denying the open man. The defense is sixth best in the nation at assists per field goal. For Collinsworth, that will be extra troubling, as the BYU point guard turns the ball over 3.7 times per game - tops in the WCC. Look for Gonzaga to be extra aggressive on Collinsworth and force him into some easy mistakes.

Can Gonzaga ignore the road environment?

Short answer no. Long answer, hell no. I may be a bit biased because of the permanent Gonzaga lens flare I have occupying my vision, but the BYU faithful are some of the loudest, most obnoxious, homer fans on the planet. Honestly, kudos to them, it is what makes it such a hard arena for the visitors to come into. But those fans will ferociously boo every single call that goes slightly against their way, no matter how obvious the call is.

With that said, it is going to be loud in there. Kevin Pangos, albeit only through two true road games this season, is still doing his home/road Jekyll and Hyde routine. Over his career, his field goal percentage at home is 50.4 percent. On the road it is 35.3 percent. He hits 49 percent of his threes at home and only 30 percent on the road. It is rough road for Pangos, but realistically at this point in his career we just have to assume this is how it is going to have to be. So my expectations for Pangos aren't that high, and I'd like to see the same from Mark Few. Gary Bell, on the flipside, doesn't have such severe splits and could be a huge X-factor in this game if the offense involves him.

Game info

Time: 3 p.m. PT

TV: ESPN2

Online: WatchESPN

Radio: AM 1510 KGA (Spokane), AM 880 KIXI (Seattle), AM 1360 KUIK (Portland)