The Zags are coming off a solid win against San Francisco, in which they darted out to an early lead and never looked back. BYU, on the other hand, allowed Pepperdine just their second (!!!) win of conference play with a confounding 92-80 loss.
Of course, the first time these two teams met in Provo, things were a bit more tight, with Gonzaga eventually pulling out a 75-74 win thanks to the heroics of Julian Strawther. Will the Cougars have the same moxy without the home fans?
JULIAN STRAWTHER WITH THE DAGGER— ESPN (@espn) January 13, 2023
Gonzaga comes back to win it‼️ pic.twitter.com/vjSQ3vSP48
Meet the opponent
BYU Cougars, 16-11, KenPom #80
In general, when one thinks of BYU, they tend to think of high-powered offenses. And to a certain extent, like Gonzaga, it just isn’t quite at the level it needs to be at this season for the Cougars.
Senior forward Gideon George is always a threat, and watching him and Anton Watson or Drew Timme pound the post is going to be a treat. Sophomore center Fousseyni Traore has echos of Yoeli Childs at times, an undersized but invigorating workhorse who just gets it done in the paint. Jaxson Robinson, a transfer from Arkansas who transferred from Texas A&M is a former top-100 recruit who is contributing nicely from the wing.
The guard play for the Cougars, however, is in general lacking. Dallin Hall won the 2020 Utah Gatorade Player of the Year Award in High School, but hasn’t consistent been able to establish himself in games. As the starting point guard of the Cougars future at the moment, Mark Pope keeps passing him the rock.
Junior guard Spencer Johnson can be a threat from three, but he can also disappear in games. He has scored in single-digits in six of the Cougars 12 conference games this season.
What to watch out for
Keep building the momentum.
Two big things happened on Thursday. First: The Gonzaga offense looked pretty solid for a full 40 minutes and the defense didn’t look half bad (by this season’s standards). Two: Saint Mary’s lost to LMU. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the Zags are in the drivers seat, but the Gaels stumbled, leaving Gonzaga one game behind in the standings with the two teams still to face off in Spokane.
Before that happens, however, Gonzaga needs to keep winning games. It hasn’t happened too often that Gonzaga has jumped out to an early lead and coasted the rest of the way, like WCC games of previous years. Thursday night against San Fran was just that. BYU and Saturday night should bring a rowdy crowd in, so let’s see if Gonzaga can pull off that feat again.
Time for an upswing on Nolan Hickman’s year.
There is no way to cut it. The Zags’ starting point guard has been all over the place this year, showing flashes of why Mark Few has utilized him all year with just as many complete disappearances to boot. Hickman started out conference play on a nice upward trajectory, but as he has done throughout the season, the pendulum has swung the other direction. Since the loss to LMU, Hickman’s posted an offensive rating of just 0.85, not at all what is needed from him.
In response, we’ve seen him riding the bench a little bit more than he was at the beginning of the season. Hickman’s defense leaves a little bit to be desired, so when the offense is gone, it looks like a gaping wound rather than a scratch.
We saw Hunter Sallis bringing the ball up the court a little bit on Thursday. Rasir Bolton and Malachi Smith also filling in as well. Hickman is at serious risk of losing ceding more minutes unless he can get back in his groove.
Punish the Cougars on turnovers.
BYU’s offense is not good at ball security, and this should be a point of focus for the Gonzaga defense. As porous as it may be, the Zags’ defense still leads to easy points for the Zags’ offense. The Zags forced the Cougars into 17 turnovers the first time around, but pretty much offset that with 16 of their own. Lower that number for Gonzaga and the win should come much easier this time around.