Undefeated and ranked No. 1 all season long last season up until a loss to Baylor in the national championship game, the Gonzaga Bulldogs saw two starters become first-round picks in the NBA draft last summer.
Jalen Suggs was the No. 5 overall pick and Corey Kispert was No. 15 overall. The Zags also lost guard Joel Ayayi, as well as longtime assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, who’s now the head coach at Arizona.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga signed the No. 1 overall recruit in the country, 7-foot-1 freshman Chet Holmgren, and returned national player of the year candidate Drew Timme, among others.
The Zags, the perennial West Coast Conference champs, have their sights on their first national championship, the only prize that’s eluded them.
So as BYU renews its rivalry with No. 2 Gonzaga Thursday (9 p.m. MST, ESPN2) at The Kennel, it faces a reloaded team that’s not much different from last year’s squad that defeated the Cougars three times, including in the WCC tournament championship game.
“They’re longer because of Chet. They are a little bit younger in some ways,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “They’re still built in essence — some of the same things are still terrifying. They’re still playing ridiculously fast. They’re really, really skilled. They’re incredibly physical. They’re super talented. All the problems are the same, just some different faces.”
The Zags have won eight of the last nine meetings against the Cougars. BYU hasn’t won in Spokane since 2015-17, when the Cougars improbably won three in a row there.
“The Kennel is pretty crazy. I know the Marriott Center gets a lot of rep for the BYU ROC, but those guys go crazy,” said guard Trevin Knell. “They’re there 60 minutes before the game starts and they’re hounding us and calling us names. But we love it. It’s a great atmosphere. We’re super excited to be there.”
The last time the Cougars knocked off Gonzaga was at the sold-out Marriott Center on Senior Night in February 2020. The Zags were ranked No. 2 at the time.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few knows what to expect when facing BYU.
“They always just play crazy, crazy hard and they come at you with a multitude of guys and play with great confidence. They’ll pull guys off the bench you haven’t seen in a while and the first time they touch it, they’ll shoot it and usually goes in,” he said. “(Alex) Barcello is a terrific, experienced player. He must be on his fifth year now or so.
“They’re getting some really good play out of the freshman big and they’ve had a wonderful, successful nonleague,” he continued. “I think they’re top 25, top 30 in the NET, much like San Francisco and Saint Mary’s.”
Since joining the WCC in 2011-12, BYU has been chasing Gonzaga. But the Cougars aren’t alone in that quest.
“It’s just the chase. It’s not just us. It’s every team in college basketball that’s chasing Gonzaga,” Pope said. “Kentucky is chasing Gonzaga. North Carolina is chasing Gonzaga. Duke is chasing Gonzaga. Everybody is chasing Gonzaga. The fact that they’re right here in our league is pretty awesome.”
The Cougars have never won a WCC regular-season or tournament title, in large part because of the Zags, who are chasing a national title.
“It’s a unique gift for us that nobody else in the country gets. We’ve played them more than anybody else. You always want to go play the best and they are the very best,” Pope said. “Certainly, Gonzaga has gone a long way of validating this conference. … They’ve been ranked No. 1 for two straight years. They’ve played in the national championship game twice in the last four years. They have been the most successful team, record-wise, in college basketball. It’s pretty impressive.”
Timme is averaging 16.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game and Holmgren is averaging 13.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.
“He’s just super crafty,” BYU forward Caleb Lohner said of Timme. “Watching film of him and playing him last year, there’s all sorts of times where he’ll have the ball and you think you have him guarded. But he makes some move, or multiple moves, and he gets where he wants to finish at the rim. It will be huge for us to limit that.”
Of Holmgren, Lohner said: “He’s super long. He makes plays. We’ve got to limit his catches on the defensive end of the floor. It’s going to be a team effort on defense. Loud talk, help from each other. Communication is going to be a big key for this game.”
In addition, guards Julian Strawther (13.1, 6.1 rebounds), Iowa State transfer Kasir Bolton (11, 3.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists) and Andrew Nembhard (8.1 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists) give the Zags an explosive offensive attack.
Beating the Zags means having a certain attitude and mindset, according to Knell.
“I don’t think it requires a perfect game; I think it requires a lot of toughness and physicality. It’s playing with a chip on your shoulder, playing with an angry attitude. No matter what, you’re trying to get into their head. Not trying to start a fight but you have to bring it,” he said. “The Zags are a talented team and they bring it every night. For us, we can’t be 39 minutes of playing as hard as we can and one minute taking a break. It has to be 40 minutes all-in, 100% of your effort. If you give 100%, the Zags are beatable.”
Lohner has struggled offensively for most of the season and he knows that he’ll need to play at a high level against Gonzaga.
“I don’t think I’m playing like how I’ve wanted to play. There have been moments this season where I’ve been pretty good and there have been moments where I haven’t really asserted myself in ways that I really wanted to,” Lohner said. “This is a big game just to get everyone’s confidence and go and play a tough No. 2 team in the country and give it all you’ve got and benchmark yourself of where you are. It’s going to be fun for us as a team, as a program, and as a university. Everybody hates Gonzaga. So it’s fun to go play them.”
Of course, the Cougars will be counting on their senior guards, Barcello and Te’Jon Lucas, to provide stability and leadership.
“We’re not winning a lot of games without Alex and Te’Jon being great,” Pope said. “They don’t have to score all the points or make all of the plays. But their presence has to be felt, no doubt about it. It’s really important for us.”
Once again, it’s a measuring-stick game for BYU.
“It always is when you play the Zags. They’re one of the top teams in the country. Usually, they’re the undisputed top team in the country,” Pope said. “And they might be this year also right now. But it’s great. When you get to go play the best team in the country at their place, that’s the toughest game any team in college basketball is going to have.”