San Francisco • BYU basketball coach Dave Rose called it.
Back in 2016, when the San Francisco hired former San Diego, Air Force and Saint Mary’s assistant and Columbia head coach Kyle Smith to replace Rex Walters on The Hilltop, as USF’s campus is known, Rose predicted immediate success for his longtime friend.
Rose said three years ago that Smith, whom Richmond coach Chris Mooney once called “the smartest man in college basketball,” would have the Dons challenging BYU and Saint Mary’s for a spot in the West Coast Conference’s Big Three with Gonzaga.
Rose was right.
San Francisco (3-1 WCC, 15-3 overall) is arguably the second-best team in the league this year, behind Gonzaga, of course, and the early favorite to earn the league’s all-important No. 2 seed for the conference tournament. The Dons eked out a 53-52 win at Pacific late Thursday night while BYU was holding off Pepperdine 87-76 in Malibu.
So Smith’s team has won three of its last four, and Rose’s Cougars (4-1, 12-8) have won three straight heading into Saturday night’s showdown at War Memorial Gymnasium, which was almost sold out as of midday Friday. For probably the first time since BYU joined the league in 2011-12, USF will have considerably more fans at the game than the Cougars, usually a big Bay Area draw.
“I really like this [USF] team,” Rose said after TJ Haws scored a career-high 34 points in the win over the Waves. “Kyle is doing a heckuva job with his group. … Our coaches know these guys really well. We have watched them play a bunch of times, so hopefully our guys will get on it and we will have another battle.”
San Francisco is off to its best start since the 1981-82 season when it opened the year 15-2. This season, USF was undefeated at War Memorial until it fell 96-83 to Gonzaga here a week ago. The Dons led 81-79 with just under four minutes remaining before the Zags closed on a 15-2 run.
Smith utilizes three outstanding guards in redshirt sophomore Charles Minlend, senior Frankie Ferrari and junior Jordan Ratinho. The Dons are capable inside with seniors Matt McCarthy and Nate Renfro and junior Jimbo Lull.
Minlend, who sat out last year with an injury, leads USF in scoring with a 15.2 average. Ferrari chips in 13.4 points and 5.3 assists and is probably the most crafty ballhandler in the league. Ratinho averages 10.2 points and is a deadly 3-point shooter, having made 42 of 102 3-point attempts this season.
“They are a lot deeper, and they play a lot more guys,” Rose said. “They have a lot of confidence. They’ve won [15 games] this year. Hopefully our guys get in there and get off to a really good start, because that’s what seems to be really important for us. We have to hang in there in the first half.”
Haws was phenomenal Thursday, adding eight assists, seven rebounds and two steals to his scoring total, and the Cougars will need another Pepperdine-type performance from the junior if they hope to remain undefeated at USF as a WCC member. That’s right — War Memorial is the only gym in the league where BYU has not lost.
“I know the past few years we have been really ready to go from the start in those games at San Francisco,” Haws said. “I feel like we have shot the ball well in that gym.”
Along with the obvious motivation of keeping pace with Gonzaga for the league lead, the Dons will have revenge on their minds. They led BYU by six points with 39.3 seconds remaining last year in Provo, only to give up the lead when Jahshire Hardnett made a 3-point play and Elijah Bryant hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation.
The Cougars won it in overtime, 75-73.
Hardnett has a bone bruise on his left hand, which was in a cast Thursday, and hasn’t played since a 88-66 loss at Saint Mary’s on Jan. 5. Rose called the junior guard “day to day,” but acknowledged a quick return doesn’t appear promising.
“It could be a lot of days [before he’s back],” Rose said. “It could be a few days. The doctors basically said he has a few things he needs to do without pain, and then they will release him, let him go play.”
BYU AT SAN FRANCISCO
At War Memorial Gymnasium at Sobrato Center, San Francisco
Tipoff • Saturday, 9 p.m. MST
TV • NBCS Bay Area
Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 4-1, 12-8; San Francisco 3-1, 15-3
Series history • BYU leads 19-6
Last meeting • BYU 75, USF 73 OT (Feb. 15, 2018)
About the Dons • Trailing by three at Pacific with 42 seconds remaining Thursday night, they made up the deficit with a 3-point play by Jordan Ratinho and got a free throw by Charles Minlend with 1.2 seconds remaining to take a 53-52 win over the Tigers in Stockton. …They are 3-1 in the WCC for the first time since the 2013-14 season. Their 53 points is a season low. … Minlend leads them in scoring with a 15.2 average, followed by Frankie Ferrari at 13.4 and Ratinho at 10.2 and Matt McCarthy at 9.7.
About the Cougars • They have never lost at San Francisco as a WCC member, having defeated the Dons seven straight times at War Memorial. They are 14-1 against USF in league play. … Junior wing Zac Seljaas grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds and scored nine points off the bench in Thursday’s 87-76 win over Pepperdine. … Point guard TJ Haws had eight assists in the victory and has led the team in assists in 17 of their 20 games. He scored a career-high 34 points, going 7 of 14 from the field and 18 of 22 from the free-throw line.