The Zags play their second of two road games this week up in Provo, Utah as they look to sweep BYU in conference play. It will most certainly be the most hostile environment the Zags have played in considering the capacity restrictions set by California throughout the last couple of months.
The Zags are coming off of a 30 point win over San Diego on Thursday that showcased exactly what makes this team nearly impossible to beat. After a torrid three-point barrage against Portland the week prior, Gonzaga scored 48 points in the paint and imposed their will.
Meet the opponent
BYU Cougars, 17-7 (5-4), KenPom #36
The first team to play Gonzaga for a second time this season, BYU has been headed in the wrong direction ever since their 26 point loss in Spokane. They’ve dropped three straight conference games to the likes of Santa Clara, Pacific and on Thursday night, San Francisco. It’s the first time the Cougars lost three games in a row in the WCC and the worst record at this point of the season since 2015.
If a team was ever on the ropes it would be BYU right now. The Cougars are two games behind Saint Mary’s—a team they beat back on January 8th—and have an unclear path to returning to second-best in the WCC. They’re a game behind San Diego and a game-and-a-half behind Santa Clara and San Francisco. While it’s unlikely they’ll stay at sixth in the conference, the room for error in remaining in the NCAA tournament is razor-thin.
It’s easy to blame this dropoff on the absence of big men Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward, but neither center was going to ultimately be the answer or ideal replacement for the loss of Matt Haarms. And while playing small, BYU is still a serviceable to good rebounding team, ranking eighth in defensive rebounds and 12th in total rebounds per game. No, the woes for the Cougars are firmly centered on the offensive end and the inability to offer any complimentary firepower whatsoever to likely All-WCC First Team member Alex Barcello.
Barcello scored 25 points Thursday night in the Cougars’ 73-59 loss against San Francisco. No other starter scored more than 3 points. The rest of the team shot 33% from the field and went 0-10 from the perimeter. The team averaged a sputtering .855 points per possession and had no answer for Golden’s gamesmanship of trapping and closing off Barcello.
For the Cougars to live up to their preseason and early nonconference hype they needed a clear and certain progression and development from sophomore Caleb Lohner and senior Gideon George. Instead, Lohner has regressed from a high-energy second-chance scorer to a serviceable rebounder and George’s offense is still waiting to develop. They shoot a combined 37.8% from the field and can’t play on the floor at the same time.
The slow-sinking hopes for March have begun affecting the team as they held a players-only meeting after their Pacific loss and racked up multiple technicals throughout their game against San Francisco. Caleb Lohner earned a technical for taking exception to a loose ball collision and Barcello repeatedly had to be escorted away from San Francisco’s bench as the game became further and further out of reach.
Saturday’s game is one of two final opportunities for the Cougars to earn a marquee win in the conference. And while not a must-win, it may be tough for this team to weather another 20 point loss to the Zags and keep their bubble hopes alive.
What to watch for
Will Gonzaga copy the defensive scheme?
The Zags have the guys to limit Barcello on their own between Andrew Nembhard, Rasir Bolton and the ever-improving young guards. But it’s clear that trapping Barcello forces the rest of this Cougars backcourt to force their game and come up empty. Lucas has proven to not be the offensive threat that the Cougars needed in a pairing. Trevin Knell has yet to put a consistent game together. If you do not let Barcello beat you, it’s tough to imagine someone else on this roster doing so in his place.
How does BYU adjust their approach?
The Cougars decided to try and run with the Zags in hopes it would limit the advantage Gonzaga had in the frontcourt matchup. Instead, it only played into the advantage Gonzaga had with their speed and transition scorers. We’ve seen Gonzaga win in a multitude of ways in conference play simply by accepting the opponents’ gameplan and countering. Do you want to pack the paint, Portland? Fine, Gonzaga will drill 18 three-pointers. Do you want to chase the Zags off of the three-point line, San Diego? Ok, have a steady diet of paint points and midrange shots. It will be interesting to see which iteration of poison Mark Pope’s team will pick.
How does the offense continue to evolve?
After scoring 20 points just once in the nonconference, Chet Holmgren has scored 21 points or more in three of his last four games. He’s still incredibly efficient, scoring these high totals while shooting no more than 13 times in any game this season. The luxury with the 7-foot-1 unicorn is that you never need to force his looks, they just come naturally. How Gonzaga continues to develop his role in the offense will help decide the offensive ceiling this team will have come tournament time.