BYU’s current stretch of five straight wins has earned it sole possession of second place in conference play, one game out of first behind Gonzaga. The Cougars have a chance to seize first place in the WCC with a win at Portland Jan. 23, and a win at Spokane Jan 25., against the Bulldogs.
At face value, the Portland Pilots (11–8, 3–4), don’t appear to be too much of a threat in conference play. Last season, the Cougars beat the Pilots handily in two meetings, the second of which came on Feb. 16 in Provo, where Tyler Haws’ 28 points, eight rebounds and two steals gave the Cougars a ninth consecutive win against the Pilots, having never lost to the Portland squad. But this year is different. Led by sophomore guard, Bryce Pressley (16 pts, 9 rebs, 2 blks.), the Pilots stunned the No. 22 Bulldogs on Jan. 10 handing them their only loss in conference play.
While the Cougars’ starting lineup has been in flux, changing several times within the last couple weeks, forward Ryan Nicholas and center Thomas van der Mars have proved to be real mainstays for the Pilots, who have played together for three years. The post play and improvement from junior guard Kevin Bailey will be the key to the Pilots’ success.
BYU head coach Dave Rose said the Cougars need to keep preparation for the Pilots as a central focus and not look too far ahead to the Bulldogs.
“I think our guys are in a pretty good mindset right now as far as their preparation,” Rose said. “They (Portland) have been really consistent in their personnel, and I think that has given them a lot of confidence the last couple weeks.
Freshman forward Eric Mika spoke about his injury and adjusting to life as a collegiate athlete, especially related to road games.
“I was out for a whole week of practice and two and a half games,” Mika said. “I felt good in practice before San Francisco and Santa Clara. I think once you get into a game, it’s a whole different thing than practice. leaving every Wednesday for a couple road games is different, but it’s not so different that it throws me off.”
Rose said the key is to cover the low post well, while maintaining heavy pressure on the Pilots’ guards.
“Their guards are so much improved,” Rose said. “Bailey is a guy that has just gotten better and better each year he’s played. The challenge will be trying to figure out a way to handle those guys in the low post and high post and still cover their guards.”
The Cougars travel to Spokane on Jan. 21, where Gonzaga (16–3, 6–1) has proven to be tough to beat. BYU (13–7, 5–2), is 2–5 all-time against the Zags, having never won in Spokane. The Bulldogs, while not as dominant as their No. 1 overall seed a year ago, still lead the WCC and feature junior guard Kevin Pangos, who leads the team with 16 points per game and is shooting including 42.6 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from beyond the arc.
The Cougars leading scorer, junior guard Tyler Haws, feels comfortable his team is focused on being consistent and getting wins.
“You have to take each game one day at a time, and you can’t overlook anyone,” Haws said. “I think we learned that lesson our first two games in conference, and if we play the right way, I feel like we can beat anyone”
Junior forward, Nate Austin, tweaked his ankle Tuesday in practice and will have X-rays to evaluate the possibility of playing Portland. If he is unable to suit up, junior forward Josh Sharp will most likely fill the void in the starting lineup.