Keys to Gonzaga vs. BYU


Conference play is kicking off this Saturday, and the West Coast Conference is starting things off with a bang, as the BYU Cougars host the #8 Gonzaga Bulldogs in Provo in what is one of the most prominent games of the year.

As indicated by their top-10 ranking, Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the country. Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. are healthy and back to their dominating ways, newcomers Byron Wesley and Kyle Wiltjer have meshed perfectly into Mark Few’s system, and there are so many scoring weapons at Few’s disposal, we often see a new leading scorer every night. This team has been described as possibly the best squad in Gonzaga history, and rightfully so.

BYU currently sits directly below the Zags in conference standings. Though they’ve already been handed three losses by the likes of San Diego State, Purdue, and Utah, the Cougars cannot be underestimated. In case you somehow weren’t aware, BYU leads all of college basketball in scoring, averaging 88.0 points per game. Their losses to SDSU and Purdue were both well-fought games that ended in overtime, and they kept up with a powerful Utah team that just so happens to be ranked in the top 15. My point being, BYU is really good – do not, by any means, overlook them.

As these two WCC powerhouses prepare to square off, let’s take a look at some of the keys for both teams heading into the matchup:

The Brigham Young Cougars

Keep Up That Strong Offense: Alright, this one is a little obvious. If BYU wants to win, they need to continue  to put up such high numbers on offense. (What a revelation) But the reason that I bring this up is that Gonzaga has really figured things out on defense this year. Wiltjer has vastly improved his defensive capabilities, Przemek Karnowski literally makes a difference just by standing on the court (he’s kind of big), and Domantas Sabonis has shown flashes of defensive excellence so far this year.

Dec 23, 2014; Provo, UT, USA; Brigham Young Cougars guard Tyler Haws (3) shoots the ball during the second half against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Marriott Center. Brigham Young Cougars won the game in overtime 77-71. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Though BYU has played a number of great defensive teams, the Zags will surely present them with a challenge. Chase Fischer is averaging 13.6 PPG, shooting 41% from the arc. Anson Winder has really stepped it up for the Cougars, averaging 14.2 PPG and shooting 54% from the floor, which are colossal improvements from previous years. Tyler Haws is Tyler Haws. Clearly, BYU has plenty of offensive weaponry. But remember, Pangos and Bell are healthy – combine that with Byron Wesley’s long arms and impressive size and you’ve got yourself one tough puzzle to solve in the backcourt. The key for BYU will be their ability to continue to make it rain from the floor against a defense as strong as Gonzaga’s.

More Production in the Post: BYU’s offense may be the best in the nation statistically, but let’s take something else into account here: a majority of their offensive production comes from guard play. Their four leading scorers (Haws, Winder, Fischer, and Collinsworth) are all guards. Isaac Neilson, the freshman forward out of Mission Viejo, CA, is next on the scoring list, averaging 5.6 PPG. The next big man on that list is freshman center Corbin Kaufusi, averaging 3.4 PPG.

It won’t be easy against Gonzaga’s previously mentioned big men, but the Cougars would get a huge boost if their post players made more offensive contributions. Say, for example, that Bell Jr., the Bulldogs’ best perimeter defender, shuts down Haws for the entire game. Say Anson Winder stumbles against Byron Wesley’s stellar defense, and BYU’s guards are struggling to achieve their normal scoring barrages. A breakout night from Neilson, Kaufusi, or even Nate Austin would help to keep BYU above water. I truly believe that BYU’s bigs, though young, are capable of strong offensive production – it could make a big difference.

The Gonzaga Bulldogs

Stop Their Offense: Again, another obvious bullet point here. But really, think about it. The Cougars lead the NATION (including Kentucky, Duke, or anyone) in scoring. That’s an amazing accomplishment and a great testament to the tremendous level of talent on this squad. BYU’s guards, as we covered earlier, know how to make that ball fall through the hoop.

Dec 13, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Kyle Wiltjer (33) shoots over UCLA Bruins forward Kevon Looney (5) during the game at Pauley Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Zags struggled last Saturday against Cal Poly, squeaking by the Mustangs in a closely contested game. It looked like the Bulldogs forgot to pack that stellar defense onto the plane when they left Spokane to head to the Key Arena in Seattle. I don’t know what was up that night, but their defense was gone. So let’s just clear this up now: if Gonzaga plays defense against BYU like they did against Cal Poly, they’ll start conference play with a big, red “L” next to the game’s score. The Zags can’t have careless turnovers (16, to be exact) and defensive lapses if they want to stop the nation’s best offense. If Gonzaga can exhibit the defensive presence they had before playing Cal Poly, they’ll walk out of the Marriott Center with smiles on their faces and another nifty victory under their belt.

Exploit Defensive Weaknesses: So far this year, it seems like BYU put all of their eggs in one basket. Though their offense is astronomical, their defense isn’t quite up to par. To what degree you ask? Well, as described by James M. Taylor’s recent article from the “Vanquish the Foe” blog, the Cougars are allowing 74 points per game, putting them square at 318th in the country in that category. This seems odd at first, because BYU is actually averaging more rebounds than the Zags at this point.

But as I mentioned earlier, BYU’s post players are young, and though they all hold great talent and potential, they are still learning the ropes in the NCAA. They’ve been great contributors to the Cougars’ defensive struggles. And this is exactly what Mark Few and his big men need to take advantage of. Karnowski has been superb on both ends of the floor, and Kyle Wiltjer is leading the team in scoring with 16.8 PPG. With Przemek’s ability to post up in the paint and Wiltjer’s capacity to stretch the floor and sink a three pointer or jumper, Gonzaga could give BYU a ton of trouble in the post. I have a feeling that if the Zags come out of this game victorious, it will be largely due to the contributions from their big men.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that we’re going to see both teams performing to the best of their abilities on Saturday in Provo. This is a huge game for both Gonzaga and BYU and will make a noticeable impact come selection time in March. We’re in for a fun matchup, folks – get ready for some exciting West Coast Conference action.