Mark Pope got a peek at what Big 12 basketball would be like while barking at No. 2 Gonzaga Thursday night in the Kennel in Spokane.
As good as Gonzaga looked in beating the Cougars by 26 points in a near-flawless performance, Mark Few’s talented team is still ranked behind No. 1 defending national champion Baylor, the leader of BYU’s future home league in the Big 12.
As sophomore Caleb Lohner put it: BYU’s team got their derrieres kicked.
Well, he sort of said it that way.
The thing is, Pope’s team has played a tough schedule this year in an attempt to build a paper case for the NCAA’s NET rankings, Ken Pomeroy ratings, and other metrics used for entry in the NCAA Tournament in March. And that is working.
The loss to Gonzaga on the road — even by 26 — doesn’t take the shine off all that work. But it does provide a wake-up call.
The Cougars are going to have to get better. The Big 12 has teams that play big, fast and similar to the Zags. You could have a .500 league record in the Big 12 and make the Big Dance. Baylor is 15-1, Texas Tech and Texas are 13-3, and Kansas and West Virginia are 13-2.
Better? At 14-4, get better?
It will have to come with better individual performances, some continued recruiting wins, increased size, speed, length, defensive prowess and maturity of freshman Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki.
Pope’s Cougars play very good defense, as evidenced by what ESPN’s Jay Bilas called the “rock fight” win over Saint Mary’s last weekend.
Against the Zags, BYU’s defense wilted. But you have to credit Few’s team execution, skill and acumen — it was impressive to the tune of the best field goal percentage (69 %) of any college team this season.
BYU helped that to a large extent by failing to defend the rim, turning the ball over 14 times that resulted in 28 Zag points, and yielding 25 fast-break points, a point of emphasis by Pope’s staff going into the game.
Credit the Zags.
But in the wake of the big loss on the road, there were positive things to build on.
BYU has struggled at times to score from beyond the arc this season. Against the Zags, the Cougars made 13 3-pointers, four of those by star Alex Barcello.
The Cougars did tie Gonzaga in rebounds with 33. And yes that’s recognizing that when Gonzaga is shooting close to 70% there are not that many to own.
Then there’s Lohner.
No question he’s started this season in a shooting slump. He’s been clanging shots from all over the court, dribbling into offensive charges and missing shots from close range.
In this game, Lohner took a step forward. It’s come a little later than it did a year ago when he started slow then built himself into a WCC forward with a lot of clout in the league. He scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting and went 2 of 3 from distance with five rebounds.
If BYU wants to stay close to the Zags in the WCC standings and go to Las Vegas with a second seed, Pope needs this kind of production from Lohner.
The other factor is the continued development of Traore, a 6-foot-6 player who is playing a lot in the post due to the absence of Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward for the season due to health issues.
Against the Zags, who have All-American Drew Timme and the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit in 7-1 Chet Holmgren, Traore tied Holmgren for game-high rebounds with seven. Traore recorded his 23rd block of the season, tying him with Fred Roberts for the 10th-most blocks by a freshman in program history.
The 84 points in a loss was the third-highest point production by Pope’s team this year. The highest was 97 against Central Methodist and 89 in a win over Weber State.
Pope has little time to worry about all this beyond the natural progression because of Saturday’s trip to San Francisco for a 9 p.m. tipoff. The Dons are 15-2 and 2-0 in league play.
A split on this trip would go a long way to erase the embarrassment, albeit a loss most everyone expected, at the Kennel against the Zags.
Pope has never lost back-to-back league games and BYU is 8-2 in WCC play at War Memorial Gymnasium, home of the Dons.