BYU COUGARS (18-5)
vs. GONZAGA BULLDOGS (19-4)
McCarthey Athletic Center, Spokane, WA
Tip-off: Saturday, 10:00 pm ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
Gonzaga wants to run the table from now until the Big Dance.
By this time last year, Gonzaga was undefeated and had wins over Florida, Iowa State, Arizona and St. Mary's. Things are a little different this time around, as the Bulldogs have four losses heading into Thursday's game against San Diego, with a big win against Ohio State and good wins against Texas and Creighton, as well. Most critically, the Zags lost their first matchup with St. Mary's and therefore trail the Gaels in the West Coast Conference standings. Gonzaga figures to get an at-large bid if they can't take the WCC, but a conference title always feels like the bare minimum goal for a team that often has national title aspirations. To get back on track they'll need a home win on Saturday night, when they host what is widely considered the WCC's third-best team in BYU. The Cougars also play on Thursday—when they'll pay a visit to a bad Loyola Marymount team—before they make the trip to Spokane. BYU has already lost twice to St. Mary's by an average margin of 11.5, but are yet to take on Gonzaga. The second matchup between these two teams will be their regular season finale on February 24.
The Cougars feature an inside-outside offensive attack led by two players: junior G Elijah Bryant and sophomore F Yoeli Childs. Bryant is a sizeable presence in the backcourt at 6-5, 210, and he's second only to Childs on the team in rebounding with 6.5 per game entering Thursday. He's also a deadly shooter, hitting 51% from the field, 45% from three and 89.5% from the line. As of Tuesday afternoon, he was 35th in the country with a .691 true shooting percentage and had a higher usage rate than all but two players ranked ahead of him. He dropped 28 points (8-9 FG), seven rebounds and four assists in a win over Pacific this past Saturday. Childs also went off in that game with 26 points, matching his season high for a regulation game. He's a beast in the interior, leading the team in rebounds and—by a mile—blocks. He's proven he can bruise with the best of them, putting up 29 and 10 in an overtime loss to St. Mary's at the end of December. No other player on BYU scored more than eight points in that Pacific game, which is an exaggerated representation of just how much more Bryant and Childs score than everyone else. It was an off night for G TJ Haws with 0-for-5 shooting from three, but he's the team's third-leading scorer and leader in assists. He's the only one who rivals Bryant in three-point volume, but is far less effective, but not bad, at 35%.
Gonzaga obviously lost a lot of contributors over the summer, and casual fans may not recognize this year's cast of contributors. In a nine-point win over San Francisco this past Saturday—Gonzaga was favored by 18.5 and it was their fifth straight loss against the spread—starting forwards Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie each scored a game-high 16 to help the Bulldogs get over the top. Tillie also pulled down a game-high eight boards. Williams is the team's leading scorer and rebounder on the season. G Josh Perkins is between Williams and Tillie in scoring, averaging just over 13 PPG. He's had to fill the big shoes as Nigel Williams-Goss' replacement at point guard, but has out-assisted Williams-Goss despite not being the same type of scoring threat. At 44% from three, though, he is easily the team's best three-point marksman. Unlike BYU, Gonzaga is extremely balanced when it comes to scoring: G Silas Melson, G Zach Norvell Jr. and F Rui Hachimura are all averaging double-digit points alongside the aforementioned three players. Of those six, only Williams and Melson are seniors, while three are underclassmen, so the Zags have a solid foundation to build on for next season and beyond.