The Cougars played a bunch of important regular-season basketball games last year before their Sweet 16 run, but almost all of those were contested with the knowledge that BYU was in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of the outcome. Sure, winning was important as far as seeding was concerned -- before everything was shot to pieces by the Brandon Davies situation -- but nothing was of the do-or-die variety. It was known that the Cougars would go dancing.
Not so this year -- which is why Thursday's game at Gonzaga (9 p.m. MST, ESPN2) is so important.
BYU's at-large tournament bid hopes could be hanging in the balance.
I tackled that topic in my preview of the game, which has been posted online at sltrib.com.
Coach Dave Rose absolutely hates to discuss his team's NCAA Tournament chances during the regular season, so when he was asked Tuesday if the Cougars needed to win the conference tournament to get in the NCAA Tournament, he remarked, bluntly, "We gotta win the game on Thursday."
He's probably right. Rose has been to Spokane several times, but has never been to the new McCarthey Athletic Center, which opened in 2004 and now houses Gonzaga's highly successful men's and women's basketball teams.
"This will be interesting for us all. It is the one arena when we talked about joining the WCC, that I had never been in. So this will be my first, along with all the rest of the guys," Rose said.
I asked the coach about Gonzaga's incredible home-court advantage and what the Cougars will face from the sellout crowd of 6,000 on Thursday night.
"Well, I think you try not to emphasize the environment as far as how you deal with it. I think you just rely on each other and trust each other. A lot of how this goes will be how we execute. A lot more will be about how we execute than how they cheer. So we will concentrate on our execution," he said.
Rose noted later, regarding the tough environment at Gonzaga, that "We went into a pretty tough environment at St. Mary's, and they kind of got us. So we will see how this goes."
The Cougars smoked Gonzaga 83-73 in front of 19,257 at the Marriott Center exactly three weeks ago, after leading by as many as 19 points in the second half. Gonzaga committed 19 turnovers.
"Well, I think both teams played really hard in that game. What I remember from it is we turned them over quite a bit. I think you watch them play at home, and you watch them play on the road, with the young guards that they have, they are a much different team at home, a lot more confident. I don't think we can count on the points that we scored on turnovers here, up there. I think it will be a fast-paced game. I do believe that they try to play faster at home.
So we will just have to see. I know our guys will be ready to play, and hopefully we will play well," Rose said.
Asked why Gonzaga's guards play better at home, Rose said: "They shoot the ball a lot better. Just look at their stats. They shoot the ball better."
Since playing poorly at BYU -- four turnovers and just four points -- Gonzaga's freshman point guard, Kevin Pangos, has played extremely well. The Canadian is deadly from 3-point range at home, but shoots just 23 percent from beyond the arc on the road.
"The most important thing with this [Gonzaga] team is to handle that front line. And that's where we put a lot of emphasis. They had a lot of space in this game. We are going to have to close down that space a lot more, try to speed them up a little bit where they don't feel real comfortable," Rose said. "But those are two really good guards, and they can play a lot more confidently, especially at home."
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