In my five seasons of covering BYU basketball, I've watched the Cougars play at New Mexico's famed Pit three times, at UNLV's sold-out Thomas & Mack Center three times (against UNLV), at San Diego State's Viejas Arena three times and at the Spectrum in Logan once.
All four venues stand out as incredibly tough places for the visiting team to win. Last year, when BYU played at Gonzaga's McCarthey Athletic Center and lost 74-63 (it wasn't that close), I added "The Kennel" to the list, although it is not quite as large as the other places.
Gonzaga's students give the Zags a huge homecourt advantage, with synchronized cheers and the like, although the place seats only 6,000.
"It is a great arena," Rose said. "The fans are close, they are really involved. The student section is terrific. And the tradition that they have there, you can see it in all the fans. They expect to win. I think that it is similar to our arena as far as the excitement that teams get when they come in to play. Because it is a great college [atmosphere]."
The Cougars play there on Thursday night, against a Zags team that is ranked No. 10 in the country, 17-2, and coming off a heartbreaking loss at Butler. Considering those numbers, and the fact that Gonzaga is 56-2 against WCC teams at The Kennel (Saint Mary's got 'em in 2011 and Santa Clara got 'em in 2007), a BYU win would be considered a major upset.
As you can read in this piece in today's paper, the Cougars know what they are up against, but they also spoke confidently after practice Tuesday that they can give the Zags a better game than they did at the WCC semifinals last March, or in Spokane last February. BYU did beat Gonzaga in Provo last year, taking an 83-73 win by forcing Gonzaga into 19 turnovers and holding it to 41 percent shooting, including 3-for-19 from three-point range.
"I think we are going to have to give an extreme effort. We are going to have to play really hard, but we are going to have to play well. I think that their size is an issue, their depth is an issue," coach Dave Rose said when I asked him the keys to getting a win. "I think they've got really good perimeter players, and they can score. So this is a really good basketball team. I think our guys are excited to play them."
Someone asked Rose if this is the best Gonzaga team the Cougars will have seen.
"Um, from the last two years, yeah," Rose said. "We played a team in the NCAA Tournament, and the team last year. Most of the guys from last year's team are still around, and they've added a couple of guys who, not only offensively are they really balanced, but defensively they are really sound. It is a great rebounding team."
Because the Cougars knocked the Zags out of the NCAA Tournament in 2011, Jimmer Fredette's senior year, it seemed like BYU and Gonzaga began WCC play against each other in 2012 as instant rivals. Not counting a game played more than 60 years ago (Gonzaga beat BYU 46-41 in Los Angeles in 1949), the latter-day series stands 2-2.
"Any time you are playing teams that are at the top of the league, and have perennially been at the top of their league, it should get your guys pretty excited. And then you also realize the challenge. This is a team that is very successful at home, and so you have to put a special game together to go in there and beat them," Rose said.
Here are a few more comments from Rose's session with the media after Tuesday's practice:
On whether Gonzaga's 7-footer, Kelly Olynyk, changes BYU's defense:
"It changes it from last year because his size and his skill level. He's a great perimeter shooter. I think what he really does well is he tracks down balls really well, with his size. He's a guy that has great timing, and a good feel for rebounding his own miss, rebounding others. And then being able to stretch the defense."
On why he didn't want to talk much about getting his 200th win:
"I think that every coach's personality is a little bit different. I do believe that if there is anything that has changed in my personality over the years, in 30 years of coaching, it is how important it is to put the disappointments behind you and move forward. I think our players have done a pretty good job of that, and it is so important not to let one loss lead to two, and two losses lead to three. When you can shut that off, you end up getting beat, and then you get a win, you can get back on solid ground."
On whether it is even more difficult to win up there because the Zags lost last game on a buzzer beater:
"Well, we addressed this the other night. Teams that don't lost much, when they do get beat, it really stings. And so I would imagine that all those players, they are such good competitors, and that staff, they are such good competitors that there is a real sense of urgency about trying to get this thing turned around, for them."
On how much attention he pays to BYU's RPI:
"We pay a lot of attention [to it] outside of the season, when we are trying to predict the strength of [our] schedule, and the strength of other teams that [we] play in nonconference, and put a schedule together that is good for that particular team, and can also help you down the stretch as far as an at-large berth. But it is really hard to control, because you don't really know what that next year is going to hold, as far as some of the teams are concerned.
The biggest thing we worry about is trying to win the next game, and whoever that might be on the schedule."