Much of the Gonzaga season has pretty much led up to this point in the schedule. The team failed to take care of business before, so now they must take care of business now. The Bulldogs start the first of four-straight road games tonight, and are starting with the hardest as they take on the BYU Cougars at 8 p.m., televised nationally on ESPN2.
Gonzaga rebounded from the Memphis loss with two decisive wins at home against Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount. Kevin Pangos mid-season slump took a jolt in those two games as he scored 18 and 17 points. Sam Dower was an absolute monster against LMU, finishing with 25 points and 15 rebounds.
The Bulldogs are going up against a BYU team that is at its most dangerous after yet another confounding conference loss. I say most dangerous, because BYU still have legitimate at-large conversations to be had, but with every new WCC loss those conversations become less relevant. The Cougars have backed themselves into a corner this season, but if any team has the firepower to shoot its way out of it, that would be BYU.
Meet the opponent
BYU Cougars (18-10), KenPom #55, RPI #43
Those high KenPom and RPI rankings are why the Cougars are still in early bubble discussion. After the disappointing loss to Pacific, BYU did exactly what it needed to do and handed Saint Mary's a loss in Moraga. Now it is time for BYU to take care of business again.
As pretty much everyone knows by about now, the BYU offense revolves around Tyler Haws taking as many shots as he deems fit. Sometimes that results in 38 points (a win over Pacific), sometimes that results in 11 points (a loss at LMU). Either way, he is the key to this entire contest. The thing is, you don't really stop Tyler Haws. He has scored less than 15 points just twice this season. On the season, he is averaging 24.1 points per game, good for fourth in the entire nation.
The X-factor for the game might be Eric Mika. Mika, a freshman forward, has quietly put together a very solid opening year to his collegiate career. He averages 12.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, but is capable for going for a bit more. Mika is the Cougars most capable player down low, and without him they are at a severe disadvantage compared to the size of the Bulldogs up front.
Then of course there is the tandem backcourt of Kyle Collinsworth and Matt Carlino. Most teams would kill for one player with their production, and BYU has two, of course. All of these reasons are why the Cougars are one of the highest scoring teams in the nation. They are third with 85.5 points per game, but lead the nation in total points scored.
What to watch out for
The funny thing about Haws is that he will keep on shooting, and keep on shooting, regardless of whether or not the shot is falling. For someone who takes as many shots as he does, he has a rather good field goal percentage at 47.8 percent. The key to the equation is forcing him to take bad shots. Haws will score 20 points regardless, but BYU has lost seven games in which Haws has shot under 47.8 percent.
Part of the reason why BYU has lost as many games as it has is because they huck up so many shots, it also gives up just as many opportunities. Carlino is an aggressive defender, but overall BYU is pretty mediocre on the defensive front. Gonzaga needs to make sure it is taking good shots, not hurried shots. BYU is going to try and run Gonzaga out of the building, but Gonzaga can run with the best of them -- usually.
The calm and consistent approach is of the utmost importance this time around because the Marriot Center is absolute hell to play in. There will be 20,000 lunatics screaming at every single call not going BYU's way no matter how blatant or obvious the call is. Watching games against BYU is enraging just listening to the crowd, but this is also one of the reasons why BYU is so good at home. The home crowd makes it a horrible place for the away team to be in. If Gonzaga takes bad shots and lets BYU jump out to an early lead, it will be infinitely harder to crawl back into it.
This will require the Kevin Pangos of the past two games, not the Kevin Pangos of the games prior to the recent homestand. He is one of the few players on the team with the ability to truly hit a dagger needed to silence a crowd of insane people, and Gonzaga very well could need a few of these big shots.
BYU needs this game more than Gonzaga does. But Gonzaga also needs this game quite a bit. Even with Saint Mary's left on the docket, this is the biggest game on the schedule in terms of quality of opponent. A win here doesn't exactly go a long way. no Gonzaga wins do except for the WCC Championship game, but it will be a good win in the eyes of the committee. This is the point of the schedule where it is truly one game at a time, so why not get the hardest game out of the way first?