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Game Preview: Gonzaga vs. BYU

Zags play their third straight road game and pay their final visit to Provo

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Santa Clara Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

The cardiac kids survived another week to move to 8th in the country just in time for their final matchup in the Marriott Center. Just like the old times, the Cougars look to spoil the top-ranked team in the conference and try and vault themselves above their third-place standing in the league.

Meet the opponent

BYU Cougars, 13-6, KenPom #75

There was a healthy amount of skepticism going into the season for Mark Pope’s team. The preseason poll pegged BYU as a shared third-place team with San Francisco, and the Cougars have held up their end of the placement. But many asked where Pope and the staff would find the offensive replacement for freshly departed Alex Barcello, who averaged 16.8 points and commanded 24.6% usage last season.

That offensive replacement has not been found, but the Cougars have revamped and improved their defense this season thanks in part to the efforts of sophomore Fousseyni Traore and senior Gideon George. George has played over 70% of the team’s minutes this season and averages 11.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. The Cougars rank as the sixth-best team in the country at limiting opponents’ offensive rebounds.

Traore leads the team in scoring, averaging 12.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. His 14.3% offensive rebound rate is the 38th-best in the nation according to KenPom. The team attempted to alleviate the loss of Barcello by looking in the transfer portal. They landed on senior Rudi Williams, who previously played at Coastal Carolina and Kansas State the last two seasons. He has come off of the bench since the team’s December 7th game against Utah Valley and plays the fourth-most minutes on the team despite taking the second-most shots.

Because Williams serves more as a shotmaker off of the bench, Pope has leaned on freshman Dallin Hall to play major minutes as a facilitator at the point guard position. He averages 3.5 assists on the season and plays over 20 minutes per contest.

What to watch for

How will the defense look?

It’s no consolation prize, but it’s worth noting when looking at the last two games that the Zags took on the third and fifth-best offenses in the conference on their home turf. Santa Clara has the 74th-best three-point percentage in the country and San Francisco has the 74th-best effective field goal percentage as well. BYU is emphatically less effective on offense than either team.

The Cougars shoot just 30% from outside on the season and have settled on over 40% of their shots being taken from the perimeter. Considering Gonzaga’s troubles defending the rim, they should incentivize the Cougars to continue casting from deep. Traore and George are shooting 70% and 74% at the rim this season.

Getting out in transition

BYU also struggles to take care of the basketball. They average over 15 turnovers per game and have the 343rd-worst turnover rate in Division I. They’re prone to coughing up steals and self-forced turnovers nearly in equal measure. It’s worth wondering if Gonzaga can get their offense going by getting out in transition similar to how they did last season.

Can the offense space out BYU?

Where the Cougars struggle on offense, their interior defense has been the calling card for them this season. Opponents are shooting just 45.6% inside the arc this season and their 13% block rate is the 33rd highest in the country. With Drew Timme looking reasonably tired and in a funk last week, guards scoring on the perimeter will be essential to help open space for the big man to operate.

The Zags were 17 for 45 last week from outside (37%) and that pattern will need to continue. Getting clean looks for both Rasir Bolton and Julian Strawther should allow the Zags to walk out of Provo with one last road win against the Cougs in WCC play.