SAN FRANCISCO — Granted, the West Coast Conference season is still young but the league race is starting to shape up — and heat up.
BYU entered Thursday night sitting in first place before a 110-84 loss at No. 2 Gonzaga. The Cougars suffered their first league loss and they took a bit of a tumble in the WCC standings.
By late that night, BYU boarded a flight to San Francisco for its next challenge against another high-scoring opponent.
In essence, looking at the big picture, second place is up for grabs when the Cougars visit San Francisco on Saturday (9 p.m. MST, CBS Sports Network) at War Memorial Gym. This is a crucial showdown for two teams looking to keep up with perennial WCC champion Gonzaga.
How even are the two programs? As of Friday, BYU (14-4, 2-1) was No. 30 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, while USF (15-2, 2-0) checked in at No. 31.
Meanwhile, it’s a quick turnaround for the Cougars, who don’t have much time to think about Thursday’s loss or prepare for a surging USF team enjoying one of its best seasons in school history. The Dons are coming off a 97-73 thumping of Loyola Marymount Thursday at War Memorial Gym.
“We don’t have a choice. It’s coming quick,” said coach Mark Pope. “We’ll jump on a plane and head down there and play against a really explosive offensive team that can cause a lot of problems defensively. We had two minutes of grieving and then it’s, we’ve got to get constructive. Our team is good at getting constructive. That’s what you have to do.”
It’s well-documented that under Pope, BYU has not lost back-to-back regular-season games.
That standard will be put to the test once again.
When asked about his team’s ability to be resilient earlier this season, Pope said, “That’s not a coach-thing. That’s a player-thing. We have a really special group of young men that have filtered in here over the last three years and have bought into what they want to be together.”
So the Cougars are seeking to salvage a split on their first conference road swing of the season against the Dons, who have won nine consecutive home games.
Forward Caleb Lohner, who scored 17 points against the Zags, wants his team to bounce back Saturday.
“We’ve just got to take what we can and learn from it. San Francisco’s a real-deal team,” he said. “We’ve got to go in there and play how we know how to play and do the things we know how to do and try to get a win.”
Right now, San Francisco is tied for first place with the Zags.
USF guards Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz have been thorns in the side of BYU for years. And they’re still around.
Against LMU, Bouyea scored 22 points and Shabazz had 17 to go with six assists. Zane Meeks contributed 14 points and Yauhen Massalski added 13 points and eight rebounds. The Dons also forced a season-high 21 turnovers against the Lions.
Two years ago at War Memorial Gym, Shabazz poured in a career-high 32 points on 10-of-10 shooting from the field and was 6 of 6 from 3-point range against BYU. That same day, Bouyea scored 23 points, making 10 of 15 shots.
The Dons overcame a 14-point second-half deficit, going on a stunning 21-0 run to take control of the game and earn an 83-82 victory over the Cougars.
“San Francisco shoots the ball extremely well from the outside,” BYU guard Trevin Knell said this week.
This season, Bouyea, a senior, is the leading scorer for the Dons. He is averaging 17.8 points per game and has scored in double figures 14 times this season, including a season-high 30 against UNLV.
The Cougars need a much better defensive performance against USF.
“We’ve got a game on Saturday,” Lohner said. “We’ve got to put it away, learn from it and get better.”
TIP-INS: BYU beat Oregon 81-49 back in November. The Ducks knocked off No. 3 UCLA at Pauley Pavilion Thursday 84-81 in overtime, which could help the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament resume. … Alex Barcello jumped up to 50th on the all-time scoring list on Thursday after scoring a team-high 19 points. Barcello went 7 of 14 from the field and 4 of 6 from 3-point territory. … Fousseyni Traore recorded his 23rd block of the season against Gonzaga, tying him with Fred Roberts for the 10th most blocks by a freshman in program history.