During a spirited Tuesday afternoon practice at the Annex as BYU prepared for No. 2 Gonzaga, there was a sense of urgency and plenty of physicality.
An impassioned coach Mark Pope called out, and yelled at, his players several times. He showed clips of the Zags’ relentless fast break ability on a large screen. Assistant coach Nick Robinson used large pads to imitate 7-foot-1 Chet Holmgren’s length and wingspan. And a bunch of scout team players tried to copy Gonzaga’s fast-paced style of play.
Guard Alex Barcello barked at his teammates to remind them of something on the scouting report. At one point, the scout team accidentally had six players, instead of five, on the floor during a sequence, to which assistant coach Chris Burgess cracked, “That’s what it’s going to be like on Thursday.”
Yes, Gonzaga tends to come at opponents in waves.
The Cougars visit the Bulldogs Thursday (9 p.m. MST, ESPN2) at the Kennel in Spokane, Washington.
The reality is, it’s almost impossible to imitate ultra-deep, ultra-talented Gonzaga.
“One thing about Gonzaga is, you can try your best to mimic their pace and their length and athleticism and skill, but you just can’t,” Pope told reporters after practice. “The first time you’re going to see it is Thursday night when the ball tips. You’re just trying to connect some of the concepts. … If we can do that, we’ll have a chance to be successful.”
What must BYU do to spring the improbable upset?
One of the keys will be the Cougars’ defense. This might be BYU’s best defensive team in years, as it has allowed only 63.1 points per game this season. The Zags, on the other hand, are scoring an average of 87.9 points per game, including 117 in last Saturday’s win over Pepperdine.
“Transition defense,” forward Caleb Lohner said when asked about what it will take to beat Gonzaga. “Gonzaga’s fast. For us, it’s going to be about speed, pace and physicality. If we can keep certain guys from getting catches, if we can make sure we’re back in transition on defense and not giving up easy layups around the rim — whatever we can take away from them that’s easy and make things harder for them. That’s going to be really big for us to win this game.”
Last year during the regular season, BYU’s games against then-No.1 Gonzaga were moved up, rather than played on the originally scheduled dates, due to COVID-19. The Cougars had little time to prepare, and it showed.
In the game in Spokane, in the blink of an eye, the Zags raced out to a 23-2 lead in what ended up being a 17-point BYU loss. In the game in Provo, the Cougars dug a 15-2 hole for themselves early on. They finished with 19 turnovers and Gonzaga scored 26 points off of those turnovers in an 82-71 setback.
“I feel like we’re more prepared. It took us two games to really understand how fast Gonzaga really plays,” recalled guard Trevin Knell. “They got us 20-2 on us (in Spokane) and then 15-2 (in Provo) before the first media timeout. That’s what we’re keying on, those first four minutes, limiting that transition stuff that they have.”
Still, as Pope said, preparation can carry a team only so far against Gonzaga.
“I don’t know if you’re ever prepared to play these guys. Our two regular season games last year, home and away, we looked up at the clock and said, ‘What’s just happened?’ It happens really fast,” Pope said. “When you’re coaching players, you’re trying to match up your words with their experience and understanding. Every single team that has played the Zags spent days to prep, talking about transition defense. … Still, the Zags are running everybody to death. They just scored 117 points.”
So how will the Cougars deal with Gonzaga’s transition game? How will they try to avoid surrendering easy layups?
“When the shot goes up, you’ve got to be sprinting back,” Knell said. “It’s all about urgency. That’s something that we’re practicing. When a shot goes up, it’s not a backpedal, it’s a turn and sprint. … We watched a ton of film for this game. Something we’re keying in on is their transition, … limiting their offensive rebounds. If we can keep them off the glass and limit their possessions in transition, it’s going to be a great game and we’re excited for it.”
“It’s all about toughness — being alert to where these guys are on the floor and where they’re going to be moving and limiting them getting the ball is ultimately going to help us win that game,” Lohner said. “The less they can touch the ball and the less we can put these games in position to make plays, the better off we’re going to be. We know what we need to do. We’re prepared. We just need to go out there and do it.
“From a team standpoint, everyone understands what they’re getting themselves into,” he added. “Especially the leaders on this team. Even the guys that didn’t play last year have a sense of how hard this game is and how fast it is and how intense it is. It’s going to be a fun one.”
After struggling in both regular season games against Gonzaga last season, BYU led by as many as 14 points against the Zags in the first half of the West Coast Conference tournament championship game.
But Gonzaga wore the Cougars down in the second half and earned an 88-78 victory in Las Vegas.
Now comes another highly anticipated rematch.
“It’s a huge game. It’s huge for us and for the WCC. We look back to last season in the WCC championship game and we’re up by 15 points going into halftime and we end up losing in the last four minutes of the game,” Knell said. “That team was super good last year and we feel like it’s the exact same team this year. We’re going to go out and compete. Some people underestimate us. We held Saint Mary’s to 43 points (last Saturday), their lowest since 2011. So we pride ourselves on the defensive end. We know we’ve got to guard (Gonzaga) in transition. That’s where they’re really good.”
Knell, who scored a career-high 20 points and hit 5 of 10 3-pointers in the WCC championship game last year, said his team is eager to avenge that loss.
“I want them so bad,” he said. “It’s going to be smash mouth ball, kind of like Saint Mary’s. We’ve got to play with a chip on our shoulder.”
In preparation for No. 2 Gonzaga this week, practices have been grueling.
“It’s always going to be a little more intense when you’re playing a team like Gonzaga,” Knell said. “They’re either the best team in the country or top 5 every single year. As a team and coaching staff, we feel like we’re special this year. We’re doing something magical. It’s going to be a dogfight on Thursday. We’re excited and ready to go.”