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Gonzaga vs BYU Preview: Top 25 Showdown

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The biggest BYU game since they’ve been in the WCC

Gonzaga and BYU both received minor scares on Thursday night. The Zags had their worst half of the season and trailed by nine to San Francisco. The Cougars trailed in the second half to Santa Clara and were tied with just over five minutes remaining. Both teams still wound up winning by double digits.

There is plenty of significance to this game. BYU is ranked for the first time since Jimmer Fredette was in school a decade ago in the Mountain West. With a win, BYU would cement themselves not only as a tournament team, but likely a top six seed. This is the first time Gonzaga will face a ranked WCC opponent not named Saint Mary’s since, I kid you not, LMU in 1990.

With a win, Gonzaga would clinch another outright West Coast Conference regular season crown and look to finish off an undefeated league slate at home next weekend. They would also add another quadrant one victory in their hopes of gaining the number one seed in the West Region.

Meet the Opponent

BYU Cougars (22-7, 11-3 WCC, KenPom 21)

Mark Pope has done an unbelievable job navigating his first year in Provo. From suspensions to injuries, the Cougars keep finding ways to win games and find themselves firmly in the projected NCAA Tournament field. They have a top five offense in the country thanks to their second-ranked effective field goal percentage and top-ranked three-point percentage (41.9%). Their offensive efficiency in conference play is a whopping 116.8, nearly 10 points ahead of Saint Mary’s and trailing only Gonzaga. South Dakota State’s 118.7 is the only other team in the *entire country* besides Gonzaga with a higher offensive efficiency than BYU since the start of conference play.

What to Watch For

  • Three-Point Shooting

BYU is the best three-point shooting team, percentage wise, in the country. Gonzaga is third. Amazingly, Saint Mary’s is second. The top three shooting teams from beyond the arc all reside in the WCC. In their first match-up, BYU shot 6-for-20 from distance, which was a season-low until Thursday night, where Santa Clara held them to a measly 3-for-13. They hit a school record 18 threes last week against LMU and have double digit threes in six of the nine games they’ve played since their loss in Spokane. The Bulldogs have not given up double digit threes since playing Michigan in the Bahamas.

  • Both Team’s Health

Killian Tillie returned on Thursday and was the best player on the court, as he often is. Assuming nothing flares up in the next 24 hours, Gonzaga should have their full seven-man rotation ready to roll. Yoeli Childs is healthy from his finger injury that caused him to miss the first meeting between these two teams. He had a double-double against Santa Clara on Thursday and a 32-point outburst against USF two weeks ago. Gavin Baxter, who most thought would be done for the season, is working his way back into game shape. He’s averaged eight minutes in four games since returning, but has not scored. He gives BYU another big body inside and a presence on the glass. Most notably, Dalton Nixon is out for several weeks after injuring his ankle last weekend. Mark Pope and the players have all raved about Nixon’s defensive ability and his willingness to pass the ball to the open man on offense. He’s started 15 games for the Cougars and is an extremely important glue guy loss for a team that needs the depth.

  • BYU’s Weaknesses are Problematic

One of the best, and perhaps only way to beat Gonzaga is by getting extra possessions and free points. BYU does neither of those. They rank 347th in offensive rebounding percentage. They rank in the bottom third in steals and forcing turnovers. And maybe most concerning, they only score 12.3 percent of their points at the free throw line, which is 352nd in the country (only Texas is worse). In short: if BYU can’t create turnovers on defense or get second chance opportunities or get to the foul line, that puts more emphasis on them hitting a lot of jump shots. The margin for error is already slim when facing Gonzaga, but it becomes even slimmer if the only way you can win is by hitting a ton of threes.

KenPom Projection: 82-80 Gonzaga

Announcers: Dave Flemming and Sean Farnham (ESPN2, 7 pm pacific)