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What makes Gonzaga so tough to play against? Length and physicality on defense, mixed with great passing on the other end

BYU will take on the Zags Monday night at the Marriott Center.

Gonzaga forward Drew Timme (2) grabs a rebound between BYU guard Connor Harding (44) and center Richard Harward (42) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Last year is last year. BYU is focused on the now.

The Cougars may have upset Gonzaga last season in a historic Senior Night event, but none of them are using memories of that night as motivation for Monday’s game against the top-ranked Zags.

In fact, BYU coach Mark Pope doesn’t look back at any of the accomplishments the Cougars achieved last year because this is a new team.

“Sometimes we’ll reflect on things that were functional for us last year, things that were the identity of our team,” Pope said. “Maybe I should use it, but we don’t really talk about that.”

And the Cougars aren’t the only team that has changed from last year. Gonzaga has improved steps and bounds from last season.

When BYU played at Spokane, Wash., last month, the Cougars didn’t play the team basketball they are capable of, Pope said. The second-year coach said one of the biggest issues that Gonzaga presented that caused that disruption was the Zags’ length and athleticism, particularly in the backcourt.

“That was challenging the first time we saw them,” Pope said. “I think it’s challenging for everybody they play.”

The Zags are also great passers.

BYU senior Alex Barcello believes it’s hard to play against a team that shares the ball and pushes it like Gonzaga does in transition.

BYU VS. GONZAGA

At the Marriott Center

When • Monday, 9 p.m.

TV • ESPN

Gonzaga has four players averaging double-figure points this season. Corey Kispert leads the Zags with 19.9 points, followed by Drew Timme (18.8 points), Jalen Suggs (13.8 points) and Joel Ayayi (11.7 points). In comparison, the Cougars only have three players averaging in the double digits — Barcello (15.2), Matt Haarms (11.5) and Brandon Averette (11.3).

Barcello said the team is particularly focused on scout personnel so they can come into Monday’s game as prepared as can be.

“Their length and physicality on the defensive end and their athleticism and ability to pass the ball, and their IQ in terms of cutting — it sets them apart from every team in the country,” Pope said.

Pope also credits Gonzaga coach Mark Few with the Zags’ success. The BYU coach considers Few to be smarter than the rest of the WCC coaches combined, and is one of the best human beings Pope has met.

Pope’s first interaction with Few was in the second game of the 2016-17 season, in Pope’s second season at Utah Valley. The Wolverines were pummeled in a 92-69 loss in Spokane, Wash.

As a young coach, Pope was still figuring out how to be a head coach in the world of college basketball. After finishing with postgame press conferences and dealing with his team in the locker room, almost an hour and a half after the game had finished, Pope found Few out on the court by himself waiting for the Utah Valley coach.

“He was, no agenda, just wanted to check in and congratulate me on the job and wish me the best of luck,” Pope said. “And I’m like ‘who does that?’ This is an extraordinary human being. He’s kind and he’s such a great ambassador for the basketball community. I know that’s all away from basketball, but I think that’s probably woven in to the identity of why they’re so successful.”

While the Cougars saw a change in their starting lineup in Thursday’s game at Portland (Gideon George got his first start at BYU), Pope isn’t sure of what his starting five will look like on Monday.

Chances are that it’ll be heavily similar to what they’ve used most of this season, but there may be a change or two.

“We’re still digging into the best way to approach this game and the Zags,” Pope said. “The great thing is we know we have a lot of options and at the end of the day, a start matters because of the start, but it doesn’t matter for much else. You guys have seen over and over, our bench has scored more than our starters. Our bench has played more than our starters. So, we’ll figure it out.”

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