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Here’s what’s at stake when BYU hosts Saint Mary’s

Next week, the Cougars visit two of the other top teams in the league with a game against No. 4 Gonzaga Thursday and a showdown at San Francisco Saturday

Saint Mary’s Matthias Tass in action during a game against Wisconsin at the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas Nov. 24, 2021.
Saint Mary’s forward Matthias Tass in action during game against Wisconsin at the Maui Invitational in Las Vegas, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. Tass promises to be handful for BYU Saturday night when the two teams meet in Provo.
Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

For now, BYU is in sole possession of first place in the West Coast Conference standings.

The Cougars beat Pacific 73-51 in their WCC opener Thursday night at the Marriott Center. Because of COVID-19 issues throughout the league, it marked the first conference game of the season.

How long can BYU (13-3, 1-0) remain in first place?

The Cougars are entering a crucial stretch, beginning Saturday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2) at home against Saint Mary’s.

Next week, BYU visits two of the other top teams in the league with a game against No. 4 Gonzaga Thursday and a showdown at San Francisco Saturday.

But first up are the Gaels (12-3, 0-0), who will be playing in their WCC opener in Provo. If BYU has any hopes of capturing a WCC regular-season title, it needs a win at home against Saint Mary’s.

The Cougars are currently No. 30 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, while the Gaels check in at No. 43. Right now four teams — Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary’s and USF — are projected to be NCAA Tournament teams in March, and this game typically has NCAA Tournament implications. Saturday’s matchup could end up being a rare Quad 1 home game for the Cougars.

Saint Mary’s had to postpone its game Thursday at Santa Clara because of COVID-19 issues within its program.

But BYU coach Mark Pope said Thursday night that Saturday’s game is on.

“We’ve got 100% confirmation this morning at 11:15 that their equipment manager is packing their dark uniforms and it’s a go,” he said. “We’re good. Let’s go, man.”

BYU and Saint Mary’s have perennially competed for the No. 2 spot in the WCC behind national power Gonzaga. In October, the Cougars were picked to finish second in the preseason poll and the Gaels were projected to place third.

No doubt, defensive-minded Saint Mary’s will challenge BYU.

“They’ve been flirting with (being) a top-10 defensive team in the country. They’re so physical,” Pope said. “And they’re really, really long and super disciplined. The game doesn’t ever break open with Saint Mary’s because there’s never a push of pace in the game. It is like every time they take a shot, they’ve got five guys running back if they don’t have the rebound and they’re set.”

Saint Mary’s has size and depth. The Gaels’ 6-foot-10 center, Matthias Tass, is averaging a team-high 12.5 points per game, 6-8 forward Kyle Bowen is their leading rebounder (6.5 rpg), while 6-7 Dan Fotu averages 10.1 ppg and 4.3 rpg.

That size and length will be a challenge inside for the Cougars and 6-6 freshman Fousseyni Traore, who recorded a double-double, with 12 points and 11 rebounds, to go along with two assists and three blocks, against Pacific.

Pope is impressed with the progress Traore is making.

“You see a freshman player like him making those types of sophisticated, complicated, patient plays and it’s pretty exciting,” he said. “He’s been terrific and we’ve desperately needed him. He’s carrying a big load for us.”

Saint Mary’s also boasts guards Logan Johnson (10.3 ppg), Tommy Kuhse (10.1 points, 3.5 assists per game) and Alex Ducas (9.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg). Meanwhile, Augustus Marciulionis, son of NBA Hall of Famer and former Golden State Warrior Sarunas Marciulionis, is averaging 4.6 ppg.

BYU knows what type of game this will be.

BYU’s Alex Barcello dribbles against Creighton’s Alex O’Connell during a game at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.
BYU’s Alex Barcello dribbles against Creighton’s Alex O’Connell during a game at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.
Matt Gade, for the Deseret News

“It’s a physical battle the entire 40 minutes. We’re going to be prepared for that,” guard Alex Barcello, who scored a game-high 15 points against Pacific. “We know it’s going to be 40 minutes of just back-and-forth battling and physicality.”

“(Alex) is going to be beaten and bruised,” Pope said. “He’s been through this for two years. It’s just the nature of the game. They’re a great defensive team coached by a great coach (Randy Bennett).”

Of course, BYU and Saint Mary’s have played in classic games over the past decade in the WCC.

In 2020, the Cougars lost 87-84 to the Gaels in overtime in Moraga, defeated them 81-79 in Provo and fell 51-50 in the WCC Tournament semifinals in Las Vegas. That’s a difference of six points in three games.

Last season, BYU snapped its six-game losing streak in Moraga, 62-52, and later downed Saint Mary’s in Provo, 65-51.

“This rivalry, in the tenure we’ve been here the last 2 ½ years, has been really special. It feels like every game, the average deciding factor has been a point or a point-and-a-half,” Pope said. “Seems like every game has been close. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

“They’re flirting with a top-30 position, which is so great. We could actually play a home game, not against the Zags, that could end up as a Quad 1 game. That is awesome and speaks highly of the league and highly of Saint Mary’s.”