On a quest to win its fifth-straight and opening conference game, the No.8 Zags tipoff conference play with its most daunting WCC test: The BYU Cougars in Provo.
Last game the Zags ran into trouble against a stingy one-three-one zone defense, but this opponent is not one to give a lick of emphasis on the defensive end. Ranked 317th in points allowed with 74.2 per game (out of 337 teams), these Cougars can score on anyone but have played matador so far this season.
But, man, BYU can score. As the No. 1 scoring team in the country, the team with a top-5 scorer, four players averaging in double figures and a coach in Dave Rose with the 10th best winning percentage in NCAA history, the Cougars will be a test for the Zags, who despite facing a bevy of very strong defenses have not even faced an opponent in the top-25 of points per game.
Enjoy the game. Sit down and watch the whole thing. Record it. Why? Because today’s game will be the hardest game and the largest chance of a loss between now and March. At this juncture in the season, BYU looks to be the second-best team behind the Zags in the WCC and the biggest obstacle remaining on the docket this regular season.
Meet the opponent: BYU Cougars (9-3)
In nine total meetings in school history, the Bulldogs own a 6-3 series lead (1-2 in Provo). Last season the Zags won the series 2-1, the home team winning and the Bulldogs taking the third matchup in the conference tournament.
Led by shooting guard and NBA prospect Tyler Haws, the 5th highest scorer in the country (22.3 points per game), the Cougars are off to a 6-3 start, suffering all three losses by five or less points, all in overtime and two of the three at the hands away from home against top 15 teams San Diego State (in the Maui Invitational), Purdue and Utah .
The compliment to Haws in the backcourt, Anson Winder is averaging a second-most 14.2 points and junior forward Kyle Collinsworth has been the glue, averaging 13.1 points, 7.6 rebounds (team high) and 5.3 assists per game.
3 things to watch for…
1. The Tyler Haws Matinee showing: The electric scorer is still nursing an sprained ankle sustained on Dec. 13 against Weber State, yet has proven that while well under 100 percent healthy he can still light it up. In his first game back against Stanford Dec. 20, he scored 24 points; on the contrary, he struggled in BYU’s 77-71 overtime win against UMass going 2-9 shooting with just four points. An off-game does not offset the fact that Haws is arguably the best scorer in the country and top-notch competitor, but the reigning WCC Player of the Year will have to battle a weak ankle while facing his toughest test of the season.
2. Battle of the shooting guards: The last time Gonzaga topped BYU in Provo, February 2013, Haws netted 19 points and Bell countered with 15 of his own (including four 3-pointers). Shooting a team-high (players with 10+ attempts) 44 percent from 3-point range, Bell is fresh off an 0-4 shooting performance from downtown against Cal Poly. That said, the senior has scored at least 10 points four times this season and has not strayed from his consistent play as a four-year starter. Haws is a lock to put up numbers, but not to lock-down defend; watch out for Bell to answer back.
3. The shootout: As the 1st and 11th highest scoring offenses tee off on each other, expect nothing less than constant fireworks. I do not see either team being able to defend each other, which could figure to result in both teams scoring in the 80s.
My crystal ball…
Provo will be loud and rowdy and Gonzaga will play in front of a sold-out crowd, so the intense atmosphere will be there. The Zags and the Cougars can both score, but only one team has proven to be able to play defense: Gonzaga. The Cougars cannot and will not defend the multi-faceted Zags offense. While the game will be a shootout, Haws will get his and I have Gonzaga by single digits in a nail-biter, BUT this will be BYU’s first regulation defeat.
When: December 27, 3:00 p.m. (PT)
Where: Marriott Center (20,900 capacity), Provo, Utah
TV/Radio: ESPN2/Gonzaga IMG Radio Network 1510, TuneIn App