The winner will receive byes in the West Coast Conference Tournament until the semifinals and is virtually guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament in March. The loser still has to prove it belongs in the postseason despite its impressive record. Besides that, it’s just a regular basketball game.
The BYU men’s basketball team is in Spokane, Wash., to play the University of Gonzaga Thursday night. The game is the second meeting between the teams this season, the first resulting in an 83-73 Cougar win at the Marriott Center. The teams enter the game with the same conference record and sole position of second place on the line.
“This is going to be an exciting game for both teams, with a lot of implications on it,” senior guard Charles Abouo said. “Anytime you play a really good team where the game can go either way, you have to respect that and do a good job of getting prepared for it.”
The Cougars (23-6, 11-3 West Coast Conference) may be without senior forward Noah Hartsock, who injured his knee in the second half of Saturday’s game against Santa Clara. He is listed as a game-time decision for Thursday and hasn’t participated in a full practice this week.
“He’s got a lot of soreness in there,” BYU head coach Dave Rose said. “There’s a chance he can play Thursday, but my hope is that we can get him on the floor this weekend. He’s had a remarkable season as far as his ability to step up and perform every night in whatever we need. We need him in there, and hopefully we can get him back as soon as possible.”
The other half of the dominant post duo for the Cougars is junior forward Brandon Davies, who is leading the team in almost every statistical category. He leads the team with 17.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.6 steals per game, in addition to shooting 53.1 percent from the floor in conference games.
BYU is also bolstered by freshman guard Matt Carlino’s 12.1 points and 4.5 assists per game, as well as 11 points per game from Abouo.
“When we’re just going out there, having fun and playing our game, we’re at our best,” Davies said. “We’re still getting better. It’s a big game for us.”
The game will be played in the famed McCarthy Athletic Arena, nicknamed “The Kennel,” which is renowned for its atmosphere and frenzied fans.
“It’s crazy there, but we’ll be ready for them,” Abouo said. “We love playing on the road. It will be a much tougher test than the previous two times, on their home court. We’ve never played them there.”
The Bulldogs (21-5, 11-3) come into the game featuring four players who average almost identical points per game. Junior forward Elias Harris leads the team with 12.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Freshman guard Kevin Pangos averages 12.6 points and senior center Robert Sacre and freshman guard Gary Bell Jr. average 12.4 and 11 points, respectively. The Bulldogs are coming off a one-point loss to San Francisco on Saturday.
Even though BYU and Gonzaga have only played each other three times in the history of the schools, a rivalry has already developed, stemming from the win in last years’ NCAA tournament and the implications that depend on the outcome of this game.
“The rivalry thing has me flustered, because I don’t really know what it is,” Carlino said. “I don’t think any of us in the conference really like each other. If a rivalry is just wanting to beat the other team, then I consider this a rivalry. It’ll be fun.”
The game will tip off at 9 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2.
Watch highlights of last year’s NCAA tournament game with Gonzaga: