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BYU facing ‘unique opportunity’ at home against No. 1, undefeated Gonzaga

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BYU head coach Dave Rose reacts to a call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

BYU head coach Dave Rose reacts to a call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Nam Y. Huh, AP

No. 1 Gonzaga (22-0, 10-0) at BYU (16-7, 7-3)

Thursday, 9 p.m. MST Marriott Center


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM

PROVO — BYU coach Dave Rose and his players understand the historical significance of this matchup against No. 1 Gonzaga.

The Cougars have never before hosted the top-ranked team in the nation, which is why Rose calls taking on the Zags a “unique opportunity” Thursday (9 p.m., MST, ESPN2) at the 19,000-seat Marriott Center, which sold out days ago.

“Anytime you play a team in the top 25, especially in the top 10, it brings a real national relevance to the game," Rose said. "I think our guys are excited about that."

Rose also noted that this is a first for the BYU basketball program.

“This is not normal. Basketball has been played at the Marriott Center for almost 50 years and we haven’t had the No. 1 team in the country come in here yet,” he said. “So it’s a unique opportunity. Hopefully our guys take advantage of it and play well. It’s going to be a battle. It will be tough.”

What could make things even tougher for BYU against the Zags is that Cougar guard Nick Emery has been sick and didn’t practice Wednesday.

“Nick’s come down with something,” Rose said. “He’s got body aches and chills. We sent him home and hopefully it doesn’t spread to the team. Hopefully he’s feeling better tomorrow.”

Emery played last weekend despite suffering a knee contusion the previous week at Pacific.

Gonzaga (22-0, 10-0), the nation's only unbeaten team, rose to the top spot in the national polls Monday.

“There’s no question in my mind right now they deserve to be the No. 1 team in the country," Rose said. "Until somebody beats them, I think they’ll probably stay there.”

Forward Eric Mika is eager to square off against Gonzaga, especially with so much at stake.

“I’m just excited to play. Coach has made it a point for us to recognize what a great opportunity this is for us as a team to really prove to everyone how good we are,” Mika said. “I’m excited to do that and come out and do what we’ve been doing the last three days in practice, which is going out on every play, competing and getting every single ball and kind of showing people what we’re really about. I don’t think we’ve done that quite yet.”

Mika was surprised to learn this week that the No. 1 team has never played at the Marriott Center.

“I knew we had played No. 1 teams. Obviously, I’m not some freak that knows all the facts,” Mika said. “I didn’t know where it was. Coach told us that BYU has played the No. 1 four times but in different places. It was a little bit of a surprise but that’s what makes it exciting.”

One of the challenges for Mika will be going against 7-foot-1, 300-pound senior center Przemek Karnowski, who averages 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.

“He’s really big,” Mika said, who played against Karnowski three years ago, before his LDS Church mission. “He looks big and everyone says he’s big but you don’t know how big he is until you have to try to keep him out of the lane or when he ducks in or seals you, that’s when you realize how big he is. He’s big and strong and physical.”

Besides Karnowski, the Bulldogs boast other key contributors, including transfers Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Matthews (Cal) and Johnathan Williams (Missouri). Williams-Goss, a guard, averages a team-high 14.8 points per game.

“They bring some real athletic strength and speed that is unique to Gonzaga,” Rose said of that trio. “Their depth is really impressive. Guys come in and they know their roles and they perform in their roles.”

BYU guard Elijah Bryant said his team’s practices this week have been very competitive. "We just have to compete in every aspect of the game,” he said.

“You can visually see from the guys the past couple of days just an excitement about the opportunity,” Rose said. “Then you kind of dig into what (the Zags) do, how they do it and who’s doing it and you realize it’s going to be a real challenge. It’s a really good team with really good players. The team itself plays well together.”

What’s the key to knocking off Gonzaga?

“The most important thing for us is to play within ourselves, attack and take advantage of opportunities,” Rose said. “We have to share the ball. Defensively, we have to have an aggressive mindset and make plays on the ball. Your effort has to be extreme and unmatched. Hopefully that’s what we get from our guys.”

The historic significance of this game is not lost on the Cougars.

“Everyone’s definitely excited. But we also have to cherish this moment,” Bryant said. “It’s a moment we’ll remember the rest of our lives.”