Zags: A sobering night in Provo (but aren't they all?)
02-23-20

Once the BYU students had stormed the floor, and coach Mark Pope had gotten done lavishing praise on just about everybody in the house wearing a “Y” sweatshirt, a thought occurred to me: BYU’s dominating 91-78 victory Saturday night over Gonzaga wasn’t a zero-sum game, as in the benefit to the Cougars equaling the blow to the Zags.

Not really. All the mania associated with the game – the sellout crowd, the noise, the hype of the ESPN2 mikesters, Pope’s overheated reaction to it – underscored what a night it was for BYU. Which means, in the public eye, how big a deal it was to beat Gonzaga. Which means, at least by this line of thinking, that the Zags’ status as a national colossus is secure. So while the gain for the Cougars was considerable, the deficit sustained by the Zags was something less.

Nebulous, maybe. But even the metrics would suggest the night wasn’t overly costly to the Zags and their quest to capture a No. 1 seed in the West. They actually gained ground on San Diego State, which lost to a 14-14 UNLV team. At least BYU is an NCAA-tournament team-in-waiting.

All of it, all the hoopla in Provo, makes for an interesting juxtaposition against the way it was going to be when BYU joined the WCC. Remember how there was a prevailing feeling that the Cougars were going to rule the league, that all their big-school resources were going to be too much? Well, as we all know, BYU has instead faded in and out of relevance through the past decade, and not only has failed to outflank the Zags, but Saint Mary’s as well. So the tableau of Provo gone wild as it did Saturday night, about a game in an arena three times the size of the McCarthey in Spokane, is not what everybody anticipated when BYU dropped in on the WCC back in 2011.

Not that the night wasn’t a slap to the senses of the Zags. Impressions:

-- I’d guess the GU coaches would tell you this was about as far as their team has strayed from the scouting report. The Zags left shooters open, they let Yoeli Childs roam inside wantonly. It was a lousy defensive performance, bad enough to kick their KenPom ranking from No. 26 to 35 in a mere 40 minutes.

-- When Mark Few lamented his team’s toughness, some of that was code for how Filip Petrusev played. He got stripped, he had trouble playing through contact, and then spent far too much time pleading his case to officials.

-- What happened to the Joel Ayayi who was Gonzaga’s biggest surprise of the early season? The one who drained a nerveless 25-footer down the stretch to help beat Washington? The one with 19 points to lead his team’s scoring against Santa Clara in January? Ayayi didn’t hit a three in two games over the weekend. He hasn’t hit two since Feb. 1 at USF. He appears to have lost aggressiveness, something the Zags desperately need as the games become bigger.

-- The game underscores what the loss of Anton Watson to a shoulder injury means to Gonzaga. He would have been a safety net against foul trouble by the GU bigs, or the night when Petrusev is struggling.

-- GU was 5 for 25 on threes, worst since 3 of 16 at Santa Clara Jan. 30. In March, that’s a ticket to spring vacation.

-- Gonzaga still hears derision (some deserved) about the strength of the WCC. But there aren’t a lot of teams out there that would enjoy dealing with the offensive prowess of the Zags, Saint Mary’s and BYU, three of the top 13 in the nation at that end by KenPom.

-- I heard Seth Davis say the other night he thinks Gonzaga might be the one to cut down the nets in Atlanta in April. Personally, I don’t see it. But perspective is in order. It’s only the Zags’ overachieving, startling season that elicits that kind of prediction. So all wasn’t lost at BYU. But misplaced, yeah.


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