Provo • Nearly 20,000 fans are expected to almost fill BYU’s Marriott Center Thursday night to watch the upset-minded Cougars take on one of college basketball’s elite programs, a program currently ranked No. 2 in the country and that could be ranked No. 1 next week.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs (27-2) will be the highest-ranked team to ever play BYU in the 42-year-old Marriott Center.
The visit from such a highly touted team for the 9 p.m. tipoff in front of a national television audience (ESPN2) deserves and will get top billing, but also worthy of note is the fact that the most successful active coach in NCAA Division I basketball — Gonzaga’s Mark Few, with a .800 winning percentage — also will grace the massive arena’s hardwoods.
“He is really consistent in what he does,” BYU coach Dave Rose said of the Zags’ coach, in his 14th season. “He is a great evaluator, a great recruiter. And then his teams just play so well together. They compete hard, and he’s really good at adjusting to the guys that he gets.”
With No. 1 Indiana losing 77-73 to Minnesota Tuesday night, Gonzaga should rise to No. 1 if it beats BYU on Thursday and then Portland at home on Saturday, but history shows respect for Few and his program is given grudgingly across the nation, so nothing is certain. The coach told ESPN on Wednesday that he’s not banking on becoming No. 1, or getting a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament if the Zags win out.
A No. 1 ranking “would be something we haven’t accomplished yet in this program,” Few said. “We have had a great run over these last 14 years, and there really isn’t that much left that we haven’t done. … That would be something to cross off the list. I think what that shows is just how hard it is to win on the road, and we are fully preparing for just an incredible environment down at BYU coming up here on Thursday.”
While BYU and Gonzaga hope to build a rivalry — not counting a 1949 contest, the Cougars won the first two matchups before the Zags posted three routs — the coaching staffs are as friendly toward each other as any in college basketball and have been known to dine together the night before games. There is a lot of mutual respect.
“The expectation to win permeates Gonzaga’s program,” said Rose, who is the sixth-most successful active coach with a .765 winning percentage. “What is so impressive about Mark’s tenure there is that they are just so consistent in being able to win games, no matter what the style is, if it is a fast game or if it is a slowdown game, if it is a game at the rim or if it is a game where they need to score from the perimeter. And this year he seems to have all those weapons to do that.”
The late tipoff to accommodate TV and 20-9 BYU’s poor showing against quality teams this season will probably keep the 20,900-seat venue from being sold out, but the night also will serve as a tribute to the Cougars’ three starting seniors — Brandon Davies, Craig Cusick and Brock Zylstra — and two guys who had to give up basketball due to lingering injuries, Chris Collinsworth and Stephen Rogers.
Davies was recruited by Few and knows the Zags’ coach better than any of his teammates.
“He knows how to get his guys going, and get them motivated,” Davies said. “He’s a great coach. His record shows it this year, and ever since he’s been there. He was great to me on my visit. I have nothing but respect for him.”
Some national commentators have suggested Gonzaga is in for a big test, but the Cougars were barely competitive on Jan. 24 in Spokane, falling behind 40-21 at halftime before losing 83-63. BYU’s Tyler Haws, the leading scorer in the West Coast Conference with a 20.9 average, was 0 for 9 against the Zags’ stifling defense and scored just one point, by far his season low.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga’s 7-foot Player of the Year candidate, Kelly Olynyk, didn’t miss a field-goal attempt or a free throw in scoring 26 points and grabbing nine rebounds. Amazingly, he played 31 minutes and did not commit a foul. Olynynk’s running mate in the frontcourt, Elias Harris, added 25 points and 10 rebounds and was also unstoppable.
“I don’t have any doubts that we are worthy of [the ranking],” Few told ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt. “We have been playing great basketball on both ends of the floor.”
Rose’s pitch to the Cougars this week has been about seizing the moment, something BYU hasn’t done against high-profile teams.
“We talked today about what a great opportunity it is for us to play a really good team on a national stage, in our building, late in the year,” Rose said. “Hopefully our guys will be ready.”
A closer look
Best career-winning % among active NCAA coaches:
Coach Years W-L Pct.
Mark Few, Gonzaga 14 369-92 .800
Roy Williams, N. Carolina 25 694-177 .797
Brad Stevens, Butler 6 161-46 .778
Thad Matta, Ohio State 13 343-103 .769
John Calipari, Kentucky 21 524-160 .766
Dave Rose, BYU 8 205-63 .765
Mike Kryzewski, Duke 38 951-294 .764
Gonzaga at BYU
O Thursday, 9 p.m.
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 20-9, 9-5 WCC; Gonzaga 27-2, 14-0.
Series history • Gonzaga leads 4-2
Last meeting • Gonzaga 83, BYU 63 (Jan. 24)