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Spokane, Wash. • When BYU announced it was joining the West Coast Conference about 18 months ago, the Cougars immediately expressed their desire to spark a men's basketball rivalry with WCC kingpin Gonzaga, and relished the chance to test themselves at least twice a year against another private, faith-based school with a national profile.
That hoped-for rivalry is still in the budding stage, but Thursday's showdown at Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center (9 p.m., ESPN2) could turn it into something more something BYU's big win at last year's NCAA Tournament in Denver over the Zags and convincing win three weeks ago in Provo couldn't quite accomplish.
Until then, maybe the notion that this could be an NCAA Tournament elimination game for the Cougars (11-3, 23-6) will have to suffice. With an RPI of 21, one of the most difficult schedules in the country and a 3-3 record against top-50 RPI teams, Gonzaga (11-3, 21-5) is most likely in the NCAA field.
But for BYU, hopes of garnering its sixth straight trip to March Madness might be on the line. Win, and the Cougars are probably in, regardless of what happens in next week's WCC tournament in Las Vegas. Lose, and they are back on the bubble, and might need to do some damage in the conference tourney.
"We gotta win the game on Thursday," BYU coach Dave Rose said flatly this week, when asked if the Cougars have to win the conference tournament to get in the NCAA field.
Thursday's game could also have WCC regular-season title implications for BYU if league-leading Saint Mary's (12-2) stumbles at either Portland on Thursday or San Francisco on Saturday. That's amazing, considering where the Cougars were emotionally after consecutive January home losses to Loyola Marymount and Saint Mary's.
"There is a lot riding on the game, but it is [still] basketball," said BYU senior Charles Abouo. "It is fun. That's why we come here, to play in these games. We've done a pretty good job in the last couple of years of finishing well. But to get to where you want to go, you have to win these games."
The Cougars might not be at full strength, however. Noah Hartsock sprained his left knee in Saturday's 82-67 win at Santa Clara. Whether BYU's top scorer and shot-blocker plays or not will be a game-time decision. Point guard Matt Carlino also has knee issues but is expected to play.
As he usually does, Rose has downplayed the game's significance to BYU's tournament at-large hopes, instead focusing on the conference race, and continuing a trend of playing well in February. That's something the program prides itself on.
"It gives us the best opportunity to win the West Coast Conference," guard Brock Zylstra said. "Then, after that, we will worry about other things like the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament, but it is a big game, and everybody knows it."
The Cougars' road record, 8-2, is tournament-worthy, but they are bracing for the most hostile crowd of the season with the possible exception of the long-ago opener at Utah State at what Gonzaga refers to as The Kennel. Rose mentioned several times Tuesday that Gonzaga is much better at home than on the road, after the Zags trailed by as many as 19 points in Provo on Feb. 2.
"We have had a lot of support [from BYU fans], as everybody has seen, on the road," Zylstra said. "This game won't be that way, and so yeah, it will be a hostile environment. It will be a fun experience. It will be loud, it will be crazy, but we are ready for it."
Loud and crazy enough to help a rivalry get off the ground?
"Yeah," said BYU point guard Matt Carlino, who will square off against Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos, also a freshman. "When two really good teams are going at each other, especially in the same conference, it is always going to be considered a rivalry game. So it will be fun."
And profitable, for one team, considering an NCAA Tournament at-large bid is quite likely on the line.
Big matchup No. 1
With BYU's leading scorer, Noah Hartsock, nursing a left knee strain and listed as questionable for the game, the Cougars will rely even more on junior Brandon Davies, who leads the WCC in scoring in league games only (17.1 ppg.). Gonzaga's 7-foot Robert Sacre averages 12.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, and shoots well at home, making 53 percent of his attempts. He'll be looking to bounce back from a poor game in Provo.
Big matchup No. 2
Until he erupted for 30 points at San Francisco, BYU freshman point guard Matt Carlino had been playing much better at home than on the road. Carlino tweaked his knee last week, but should be fine tonight, and he will need to be because Gonzaga has one of the top freshman point guards in the country, 6-1 Kevin Pangos. The Canadian struggled but shoots the ball 10 percentage points better at home (49 percent to 39 percent).
Two of the best coaches in college basketball, if winning percentage is the appropriate gauge, match wits in Spokane. Gonzaga's Mark Few (337-88) is No. 2 among active head coaches with a winning percentage of 79.2, behind only North Carolina's Roy Williams. BYU's Dave Rose (182-51) is No. 3 on the same list, with a winning percentage of 78.1, and is 2-0 against Few all-time.
Gonzaga has brought out the best in BYU the past two seasons, as the Cougars whipped the Zags 89-67 in an NCAA Tournament game last year and followed that with a convincing 83-73 win in Provo three weeks ago. But the Cougars are playing at Gonzaga's sold-out McCarthey Athletic Center (6,000) for the first time, and GU's student section, aka "The Kennel," is as good as there is in college basketball at providing a home-court advantage.
BYU at Gonzaga
P At McCarthey Athletic Center (Spokane, Wash.)
Tipoff • Thursday, 9 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 23-6, 11-3; Gonzaga 21-5, 11-3
Series • BYU leads, 2-1
Last meeting • BYU, 83-73 (Feb. 2)
About the Cougars • They have won a season-high five straight games and seven of their last eight. … Noah Hartsock leads them in scoring (17.3 ppg.) and blocked shots (1.7) but is questionable for the game with a knee strain. … Brandon Davies is first in scoring in league games with a 17.1 average. … Anson Winder had 10 points and five assists against Gonzaga earlier this season.
About the Bulldogs • They are led in scoring by freshman guard Kevin Pangos (13.7 ppg.) although he had only four points in Provo in the first meeting. … Elias Harris, a 6-7 forward, leads them in rebounding at 8.0 rpg. … They are averaging 73.8 ppg. and allowing just 63.1 ppg. … They were just 3 of 19 from 3-point range against BYU in Provo.
Top three in the WCC
League Overall RPI
St. Mary's 12-2 23-5 32
Gonzaga 11-3 21-5 21
BYU 11-3 23-6 46