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Is Mark Pope’s BYU team good enough to overcome No. 1 Gonzaga’s talent?

A year ago the Cougars took down No. 2 Gonzaga in Provo, but in 2021 the climate has changed

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FILE: Brigham Young Cougars players celebrate their win over Pacific Tigers in double overtime at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. The Cougars host No. 1 Gonzaga on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Is BYU good enough to give No. 1 Gonzaga a real challenge Monday night in the Marriott Center?

Yes. And, well, a very strong no.

Yes, the Cougars seem to have some momentum after blowing out lowly Portland on the road and creating more chemistry with Mark Pope’s lineup.

The Cougars have climbed to No. 38 in the NET rankings. This Cougar team is ranked No. 12 of all BYU teams in recent history with a 13.39 SRS (simple rating system) by Sports-Reference.com. 

That is better than the 1987 LaDell Andersen team led by Michael Smith and Jeff Chatman that started 17-0. In that rating, BYU’s best team of all time was 2019-20 which ended 30-6 (18.82 SRS), then-No. 2 Dave Rose-coached 2010-11 team that went 32-5 (18.65 SRS) and the No. 3 Pope coached team a year ago that went 24-8 without an NCAA Tournament due to COVID-19, but beat No. 2 Gonzaga in Provo 91-78.

This Cougar team has a better Ken Pom rating (38) than Utah State (48) and Utah (66) and is undefeated instate — if that matters to anybody.

To beat the Zags, Pope needs an almost perfect game. He’ll need 95%-100% free throws and a lot of whistles that go his way. Won’t happen.

He’ll need his team to make 15 3-point shots. It can’t.

He’ll need Matt Haarms, Richard Harward and Gideon George to get half a dozen blocks against the tall and athletic Zags. A no go.

And those are just the ancillary side notes. The nitty-gritty is in the paint points and field goal percentage superiority against the nation’s No. 1 team filled with future NBA players.

Then there’s the big elephant that is not in the room: A big crowd.

A year ago when the Cougars beat Gonzaga in Provo, ending the Zags’ 39-game WCC road win streak, a big part of the atmosphere in Cougarville was a sold-out, passionate, loud Marriott Center crowd of 18,987.

It was an electrifying ambiance. Now, with the pandemic, it is a mega climate change for Pope and his players.

If you were present at that 2020 game, you witnessed remarkable energy for Pope’s team and amid all the celebratory emotion in the aftermath, the first-year BYU coach was humble enough and astute enough to credit the 20,000 screaming students in the ROC section for the assist.

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Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) celebrates with fans after BYU toppled No. 2-ranked Gonzaga 91-78 at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Almost three and a half months earlier, he had those ROC section fans practice rushing the court in celebration — just for the Zags.

Now, the ROC and voices of a sold out area have been neutered by a pandemic.

Said Pope a year ago, “This ROC is amazing. Did this happen anywhere else in America? Kids slept out for two nights in 30-degree weather to come to a game. It’s pretty extraordinary.”

The players took note, even before tipoff. Captains TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs drew tremendous fuel for the fight from the situation.

“It was unbelievable. I was in the tunnel and I started tearing up a little bit,” Haws said. “Yoeli was like, ‘We’ll cry after, bro.’ It was amazing. This place is unbelievable. These fans are incredible. How they showed up tonight was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It was fantastic.”

“Is there a bigger advantage in the world than that gym tonight?” Pope said. “They fed us energy all night long.”

This week, well, all season long, Pope has to have been going crazy because the elephant is not allowed anywhere near the Marriott Center. His team plays in a mausoleum. You have a group of parents and support staff and the other team and that’s it.

And that’s a shame.

Even a meager crowd of 2,000 or 3,000 would help. Heck, you could spread people out throughout the 19,000 seats, give them social distancing protocols and you could probably safely get in 4,000.

But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

It isn’t a state health issue that we know of because the Utah Jazz is starting to fill in parts of the top part of its arena. It isn’t a Utah County Health department issue because the county board of health hasn’t been given a request from BYU.

It isn’t even an athletic department decision. I believe the department would take any and all ticket sales it could muster after going to fans asking for donations to help meet budget after revenues cratered forcing painful layoffs and cutbacks.

It is a matter of pandemic optics for university administrators. It just doesn’t fit the right tone when so many are making sacrifices, with limitations on church building attendance and people out of work, in my humble opinion.

If not, why not allow vaccinated educators, health workers, police, and fire fighting personnel in the building — socially distanced?

BYU is very image-conscious, always has been. The TV picture of screaming fans even masked up, could bring some blowback when careful caution in academic settings have been undertaken for most of the year. 

Throughout the football season and now with the basketball and volleyball seasons underway, there hasn’t been much movement on the policy that keeps attendance at athletic events sparse and scarce. 

I think BYU is waiting to see how other universities proceed, so they aren’t creating a draft as a leader in sports attendance. It’s a safe, conservative sacrifice. For optics.

There’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of safety. That’s the theme of 2020 and now 2021. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a little frustrating for fans and players.  

Meanwhile, knowing Pope, he’s got to be pacing back and forth like a caged cougar. He’s searching for every angle, every potion, any and all edges he can tweak from the five guys he’s allowed to run on the court at one time in a game.

One of the best weapons he has — an emotional crowd — evades him.

And now Gonzaga is back in town.