Provo • They have won nine-straight games, crept close to a top-50 RPI and held eight of their last nine opponents to fewer than 70 points with slightly better defensive play and a more deliberate pace when they have the ball.
Coach Dave Rose’s 12-2 BYU basketball team has seemingly improved, but the question remains: Just how good are the new-look Cougars with junior Elijah Bryant and sophomore Yoeli Childs having replaced the Lone Peak Three as the club’s rising stars?
Saturday, the answer should come, as West Coast Conference preseason favorite Saint Mary’s, also 12-2, visits the Marriott Center a little less than 10 months after embarrassing the Cougars 81-50 in a WCC tournament semifinal game in Las Vegas.
Buoyed by his dominating 26-point, 13-rebound performance in Thursday’s 69-45 win over punchless Portland, Childs said the 2017-18 Cougars are better equipped to stay with the powerful Gaels, who lost just one key contributor — pesky guard Joe Rahon — from the team that went 29-5 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Arizona.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Childs said after his fifth double-double. “I think they are going to come out and see a totally different team, a team that shares the ball a little bit better, plays with a better pace. We’ve worked really hard, especially on the defensive end, of being able to guard what they do. So I think it is going to be a different outcome.”
Bryant, who suffered a season-ending knee injury during that March 6 game and had just 11 points on 2 of 8 shooting in 30 minutes, also believes the Cougars will show better this time around, having lost three-straight to the offensively efficient Gaels.
“What we’ve done this summer [is] we have taken a different approach and focused more on the defense to be able to win those low-scoring games. And that’s what Saint Mary’s does,” Bryant said. “Their pace is one of the slowest in the country, and we are ready for that.”
Last season’s tournament defeat to the Gaels was the most lopsided loss in Rose’s head coaching career, and the first time the 13-year BYU coach has lost three games to an opponent in a single season. Saint Mary’s won the regular-season games 81-68 on Jan. 5 and 70-57 in Provo on Feb. 18.
Assuming they haven’t taken peeks at each other the past two months, neither team will have much time to prepare, especially with the tipoff time having been moved to the afternoon to accommodate television. Minutes after BYU routed Portland, Saint Mary’s dismantled Loyola Marymount 87-59 in Moraga late Thursday night.
“You’ve got one practice at it, and that’s [Friday],” Rose said. The Cougars won’t have a true home court advantage, because students are away from campus for the holiday break, but they still drew 16,592 Thursday for Portland.
Rose said SMC is “different” without Rahon, who was a “really tenacious defensive player at the point of attack,” but is a “much better offensive team this year, I think.”
The kingpin of that offensive attack is 6-foot-11 center Jock Landale, who averages 21.1 points and 9.6 rebounds and is one of the best big men in the country. Forward Calvin Hermanson and guard Emmett Naar have also hurt the Cougars significantly in the past.
“You have to kind of pick your poison, because if you keep one guy on [Landale], he is probably going to have a big night,” Rose said. “If you bring a second guy, then you are getting in rotation, and when Saint Mary’s gets you in rotation, they are usually pretty good at hitting shots. So, that will be our challenge.”
Neither team played a difficult nonconference schedule, with BYU’s ranking the 212th toughest in Jeff Sagarin’s ratings and SMC’s the 273rd most difficult. Saturday’s game marks the first time Saint Mary’s will have left the state of California this season. Its losses came on a neutral court in Fullerton, Calif., to Georgia and Washington State.
BYU vs. SAINT MARY’S
At the Marriott Center, Provo
Tipoff • Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM, Sirius XM 143
Records • BYU 12-2, 1-0; Saint Mary’s 12-2, 1-0
Series history • BYU leads, 12-11
Last meeting • Saint Mary’s 81, BYU 50 (March 6, 2017)
About the Gaels • They have won three straight against BYU by a combined total of 57 points. … They are led in scoring (21.1 ppg.) and rebounding (9.6 rpg.) by 6-foot-11 Australian Jock Landale. … Forward Calvin Hermanson chips in 13.6 ppg. and point guard Emmett Naar, another Australian, averages 11.4 ppg. … The walloped LMU 87-59 on Thursday in Moraga, Calif.
About the Cougars • They have won nine straight games, including Thursday’s 69-45 win over Portland in the WCC opener. It is their longest winning streak since 2010-11 when they won 10-straight games twice… They had more rebounds, 46, than the Pilots had points, 45, and held Portland to a season-low in scoring. … Elijah Bryant and Yoeli Childs combined for 48 points and 28 rebounds.