The West Coast Conference has been more flexible than most other conferences so far this season. With a number of WCC schools on, or coming back from Covid pause, the league re-scheduled two games this week to pit healthy teams against each other. One of those is San Francisco, who now faces Portland instead of Pepperdine (Covid pause). The USF at LMU game on Saturday has been pushed back to Sunday with LMU coming off pause. The other change, obviously, is that Gonzaga will now face BYU, as Santa Clara and Pacific, their respective opponents, are not ready to return to game action yet.
Last season, BYU was a projected top five seed in the NCAA Tournament. They lost five seniors off that fantastic roster that beat up the Zags in Provo last February. At the start of this season, they lost Gavin Baxter again due to injury. Despite all the turnover, Mark Pope’s squad is 9-2, which is good for 67th on KenPom, and they are in the bubble conversations. They handed San Diego State their first loss of the season and have good wins over St. John’s, Utah State, and Utah.
In terms of style of play, BYU hasn’t changed a whole lot from last season. Their analytics are incredibly similar in relation to the types of shots they take, both in transition and in the half court. Their defensive numbers are almost identical as well.
The biggest issue is that they are nowhere near as efficient scoring the ball on those shots. When you lose your top three players (Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws, Jake Toolson), all of whom can create their own shot at a moment’s notice, it’s only natural to take a step backward.
Last year, BYU led the nation in three-point percentage at 42 percent. This year, that is down to 34.5 percent. Alex Barcello is really the only high-volume, reliable deep threat on they have. He’s shooting 63 percent through 11 games, fifth best in the country. Connor Harding, likely their best perimeter defender, is not a high-level scorer. Utah Valley grad transfer point guard Brandon Averette went 6-for-13 from deep in a win over Texas Southern. The rest of the season, he’s 10-for-36 (28%). Their other grad transfer, 7’3 Matt Haarms from Purdue, is 2-for-18. Their top freshman Caleb Lohner, is 4-for-21. Because of that, Sophomores Trevin Knell (12-for-29) and JUCO transfer Spencer Johnson (8-for-20) have been able to carve out consistent bench rolls solely because of their shooting.
With all that said, they are still a dangerous team because they play with good pace, run a ton of really good action, finish well at the rim, and still take plenty of threes. As we all know, it only takes one hot shooting night to pull off a victory.
Defensively, it will be interesting to see how Averette and Barcello fare against Gonzaga’s guards. Both are quick and handsy, but very much undersized compared to Jalen Suggs, Joel Ayayi, and Andrew Nembhard. BYU has plenty of big, athletic bodies to throw at Corey Kispert and Drew Timme. The Cougars have a number of bruising forwards that can make Timme’s life miserable. But I’m not sure they have the perimeter bodies to keep Gonzaga from driving to the rim the entire game. Their ball screen coverage, especially with Haarms, isn’t great by any means. The most athletic team that BYU has faced this season was USC, and the Trojans won by 26, scoring 1.11 points per possession and shooting 56 percent inside the arc.
Another smaller storyline is that BYU has not played since December 23. That’s a 15-day break with no games. As Gonzaga showed against Iowa, that could mean nothing at all. But Gonzaga has been fine-tuning their stuff against actual opponents lately while BYU has only practiced against themselves.
Game: BYU at #1 Gonzaga
Time: Thursday, 5:30 PM Pacific (Dave Flemming, Sean Farnham)
KenPom: 90-73 Gonzaga