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Mark Pope Explains How Primetime BYU/Gonzaga Matchup Came Together

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope yells after referees charged BYU with a blocking foul rather than charge Gonzaga with a charging foul at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – BYU versus Gonzaga. It doesn’t get any bigger than that in the West Coast Conference.

BYU basketball will open up its 2021 WCC schedule with a game against the undefeated and No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs on Thursday night in a game that was brought together in short order.

Originally, BYU (9-2, 0-0 WCC) was supposed to face the Pacific Tigers on Thursday. Like last week’s WCC foes Pepperdine and San Diego, Pacific experienced issues with COVID-19 to cause the games to be postponed. But that’s all in the past as the Cougars have a primetime stage with the nation’s stage top team in their home venue, The Kennel.

BYU head coach Mark Pope is never shy about “taking a swing” at something big. There’s no team bigger than the Zags (10-0, 1-0 WCC) on a primetime ESPN stage on Thursday night.

How BYU/Gonzaga came together

“When everything else fails, the one coach and program in America that you know is going to be like, ‘Bring it, man, we’re not scared,’ is the Zags,” Pope said on his coach’s show on KSL NewsRadio (Tuesday, 9 p.m.). “I couldn’t love them more right now just for the fact that they’re like, ‘Let’s play. Come on, bring it up, lace it up, and let’s go.’ We desperately want to play and they desperately want to play.”

BYU has been more fortunate than most around college basketball when it comes to playing games this season. The Cougars have completed 11 games thus far and have a solid 9-2 record that has them squarely in the NCAA Tournament conversation. But after experiencing a full weekend without games last week, Pope and his team wanted to get back out on the court.

“It’s been a mad scramble,” Pope said. “I really believe that we can’t just expect that we’re going to put all these games off and get them back. So what we did is we started a massive kind of dialogue with the league and coaches around the league and everybody else.

“We talked to about a total of 20 teams, some that were missing games because their opponent had been on pause outside of our league, every team that could possibly play inside our league. As soon as we found out our game (Saturday) was canceled on Friday, we called some other teams, but it just didn’t work. Every day, multiple times a day, trying to find teams to play.”

WCC schedule moving forward

Like BYU, Gonzaga is one of the few teams that aren’t on a pause currently in the WCC. Only two games were played in the league’s opening week due to half of the conference being on pause due to COVID-19. An opportunity for the league to try and get better moving forward.

The WCC modified schedules to bring together the showcase matchup between BYU and Gonzaga, which for the moment, will replace the Cougars February trip to The Kennel.

“The good thing that is coming from it is I think we’ve made some strides in terms of how we as a conference are going to proceed going forward. I’m incredibly optimistic about that and I think we’ll be able to function at a high level from here on out,” said Pope.

“All of the coaches have started a dialogue and everybody is checking in with the league offices every single day. I’ve talked to half the coaches in the league in the last 48 hours trying to work things out and of course, we’re having conversations with assistants through assistants and (director of basketball) ops through (director of basketball) ops. But that’s kind of how this is gonna have to work for the rest of the year.”

Among those conversations included calls to Mark Few, who Pope is excited to face on Thursday night. The last time these two teams met, BYU delivered one of the greatest wins in program history, upsetting the No. 2 Zags.

They’ll look to pull off some magic again, this time in The Kennel. A place the Zags haven’t lost since a three-point setback against Saint Mary’s in 2018.

It’s on Thursday night, and the Cougars couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.

BYU at No. 1 Gonzaga

Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. (MT)

Date: Thursday, January 7th, 2021

TV: ESPN

Radio: KSL NewsRadio (102.7 FM, 1160 AM)

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

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