BYU is entering the final third of the regular season, which coach Mark Pope terms “the championship-third of the season.”

Cougars on the air

San Francisco (17-5, 4-3)

at BYU (17-6, 5-3) 

Thursday, 8 p.m. MST

Marriott Center

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

A week ago, the Cougars had won seven of their previous eight games, sat in second place in the West Coast Conference standings, and were on the cusp of jumping back into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings. 

That was until an awful weekend that saw BYU drop games at Santa Clara and Pacific and tumble to fourth in the WCC standings. 

The Cougars begin this final stretch of the regular season Thursday (8 p.m. MST, CBS Sports Network) against another one of the league’s top teams, San Francisco. 

“We have a little bit of direction of how we want to reset going into this last third,” Pope said. “I think the guys understand and it has got us all a little bit nervous and a little bit anxious. But I’m excited about it. It’s a focus and an understanding that we’re all sharing right now.”

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With February upon us, BYU, like many teams, should be feeling a sense of urgency, knowing that March is just weeks away.

“It’s a great time of year and we have a great group of young men and a great locker room,” Pope said. “It will be fun to see what they can do.” 

Back on Jan. 15, the Cougars rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to beat the Dons at War Memorial Gym, just days after getting blown out by No. 2 Gonzaga

This time, BYU is determined to end its two-game losing streak. The Cougars are happy to be back at the Marriott Center, where they own a 12-game winning streak. 

“Definitely, coming back home is always a plus. We have the best fans in the country with the ROC. It’s going to be a sold-out crowd,” said guard Te’Jon Lucas. “We’re just blessed to be able to play in front of a crowd like this. It definitely will help us.”

“They’re one of the top teams in the country. They’re a top-30 team or top-35 team. Those games are always tough. They have an incredibly veteran, seasoned backcourt, like we do, in Bouyea and Shabazz.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on the Dons

USF, meanwhile, will be looking to avenge that loss on the Hilltop a few weeks ago. 

The Dons boast two dynamic, explosive guards in Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz.

“They’re one of the top teams in the country. They’re a top-30 team or top-35 team,” Pope said. “Those games are always tough. They have an incredibly veteran, seasoned backcourt, like we do, in Bouyea and Shabazz.” 

Bouyea averages 18.3 points per game and he shoots 41.6% from 3-point range. Shabazz averages 12.3 points and shoots 30% from 3. 

“Bouyea can get anywhere on the floor whenever he wants to. He also is a more accurate 3-point shooter off the bounce than he is catch-and-shoot. It makes him really challenging to guard,” Pope said. “Shabazz has given us fits in the past. He makes shots that you can’t guard. He’s the quickest, most mobile guy on the floor. They’re a veteran, dangerous backcourt.”

San Francisco guard Jamaree Bouyea in action against Gonzaga, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, in Spokane, Wash. Bouyea and his backcourt mate Khalil Shabazz are a potent one-two punch for the Dons. | Young Kwak, Associated Press

As concerning as Bouyea and Shabazz are for BYU, it is also mindful of the Dons’ post players, Yauhen Massalski (14.1 points, 8.9 rebounds per game) and Patrick Tape (4.5 ppg). Massalski leads the league in offensive rebounds per game (3.36).  

“When we were down there at San Francisco, I was surprised by their size and physicality,” Pope said. “Tape and Massalski are big bodies and really athletic. They rim-protect, they rebound and they’re really aggressive to the glass. Their size is eye-opening.”

USF also has some role players that have given the Cougars trouble, like guard Julian Rishwain, who poured in a team-high 25 points and drilled five 3-pointers a year ago in Provo. 

“Rishwain is a guy that’s you’re always terrified of,” Pope said. “He put on a show here last year.” 

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Guard Gabe Stefanini averages 8.4 points per game and Zane Meeks averages 5.1. 

“Bouyea and Shabazz are surrounded by a number of great shooters,” Lucas said. “Those guys are tough to guard. They’re well-coached and they’re not going to back down from anybody. They’re very physical. They were dominating us early on rebounds. They have some big guys that can hurt us.”  

“They have depth, they’re really well-coached, they understand who they are,” Pope said. “They have size and explosiveness and they can shoot the ball. … We have a keen understanding of what we’re facing. It always comes down to effort. The one thing we know is our guys will give supreme effort. The rest of it will come from scheme and matchups and spacing.” 

No doubt, BYU needs another big bounce-back win against San Francisco. 

“They’re a really good team. Their two guards have been there for a while now. We’ve got to be able to fight,” Lucas said. “They’re a great shooting and a great rebounding team. Overall, we’ve got to be able to put together 40 minutes. That’s something we haven’t done the last two games. We’ve got to be able to do that this time.”