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BYU In ‘Familiar Territory’ As They Prepare For Big Road Test At No. 1 Gonzaga

PROVO, UT - JANUARY 31: Brigham Young Cougars guard TJ Haws (30) drives against Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Geno Crandall (0) during a game between a game between the Gonzaga Bulldogs and the BYU Cougars on January 31, 2019, at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. (Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

PROVO, Utah – BYU basketball is one of the only teams in the West Coast Conference that has a track record of success in Gonzaga’s hostile McCarthey Athletic Center, more commonly known as The Kennel. But those three consecutive years of wins in Spokane have since been followed up by a pair of Zag victories where the outcome was never in doubt.

Facing the No. 1 team in the country who has won 32 consecutive regular-season WCC games would make you think that this is by far the biggest and toughest challenge BYU will swing at this season. For head Mark Pope it’s just business as usual.

“I really think my team walked into the locker room feeling like this [San Diego] game was the hardest game we’ve ever played. I really believe that. At least close to that. At least fighting themselves to believe that,” said Pope. “One of the things, that when you do that every single night, which we’ve really worked hard to do, this is not that much different. It might be easier to convince ourselves this is the biggest game we’ve played. But that’s what we work for every single game.

“So the process is going to be the same. The words are actually going to be the same.  We’re gonna go meet and I’m gonna go talk to this team and be like, guys remember this is the biggest game we’ve played all year long. We have to play harder than we’ve ever played before and then the thing is when we go on the road next week, it’s gonna be exactly the same exact conversation. So this is very familiar territory for us in that way, it’s just the way we approach every game.”

BYU has tested themselves this season with one of the best non-conference schedules in the country and they’ve found ways to win challenging games without their star Yoeli Childs. Earlier in the week on his weekly coaches show, Pope said Childs would be out another week. So it’s highly unlikely he plays against the Zags tomorrow night. But BYU won games against Houston, UCLA, and Virginia Tech without their star. Could they do it again? The one time BYU has been blown out this season was against Kansas who might be the only team that is close to the Zags’ elite level of play.

A win would do wonders for BYU who’s currently projected to be in the field of 68 for March’s NCAA Tournament but needs another signature win to bolster their resume as Power 5 teams continue to pile up games against Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 teams.

Gonzaga is coming into Saturday’s game fresh off a 50-point drubbing of a Santa Clara team that defeated Saint Mary’s last Saturday in Moraga. This just might be BYU’s best team to put together a run at a regular-season West Coast Conference title, but you have to go through Mark Few’s Zags to get that done.

“It’s the greatest thing. This Gonzaga team is a gift to our league. They just are,” Pope said. “I mean, the fact that we get to go on the road and play the No. 1 team on the country and we get to do that because they are in our league, it’s awesome.

“They are that good. They are so good. They’re so good they can play bad and still win big. You could talk endlessly about how great that program is. So we’re excited to go up and fight. We’re excited to fight and our guys believe we can win, we believe we can win. I think our guys have a sense of how hard this is. But this is what you love as an athlete and coaches are to have a chance.”

The last time Gonzaga lost a regular-season WCC game was two years ago to the day of Saturday’s game. January 18th, 2018 when the Zags lost to Saint Mary’s 74-71 in The Kennel.

What To Watch For

How will Kolby Lee follow up on his career performance?

On Thursday night, Lee had a career-high 21 points as BYU rolled through San Diego to a 23-point win. What type of production can we expect from Lee against the No. 1 Zags? Lee is not going to force the issue and play outside of the offense, but the bigs of Gonzaga are a unique challenge compared to what other teams in the WCC have to offer. Gonzaga center Filip Petrusev is probably the best player on this Zags team and Killian Tillie is next to him in the frontcourt. Finding ways to get off the “quick” shots in this game will come at a premium.

If TJ Haws is on, BYU will be in a position to win

Yoeli Childs is the best player on the team and Jake Toolson is the leader, but this team maybe goes as TJ Haws goes. If “Teej” is on and knocking down his outside shots, BYU will be in a position late in the game to spring the upset. But if he’s cold, BYU could find themselves ran out of the gym. It’s a lot of pressure on the senior guard, but he’s seen it all in his career and this game poses the opportunity to etch his legacy in BYU lore.

Keeping Corey Kispert in check

One of the toughest matchups in the league is Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. Kispert is one of the best shooters in the nation knocking down 43 percent of his three-point attempts this season. Jake Toolson will have his hands full matching up with him.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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