How BYU is preparing for Gonzaga, one of college basketball’s most unique challenges

Between playing six-on-five basketball and coaches running the scout team, BYU prepares for ‘toughest’ game of the season

(Young Kwak | AP) Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren (34) and forward Drew Timme (2) stand on the court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Alabama last month. It has been 23 months since Gonzaga lost a West Coast Conference game, a streak BYU hopes to end this week in Spokane.

Provo • Te’Jon Lucas threw up his hands with a sense of hopelessness halfway through BYU’s practice on Tuesday. The starting five for the Cougars had just allowed an easy layup to the scout team. An assistant coach from the other side of the court yelled about the lackluster defense.

But as the starters were getting chewed out, Lucas had a complaint.

“How are we supposed to guard six-on-five?” the senior guard questioned.

There was a pause. Upon review, there were six scout team members on the floor. One more than allowed. But even then, Lucas’ complaint was turned down.

“That’s how it’s going to feel on Thursday,” assistant coach Chris Burgess said back. “It might even feel like seven-on-five.”

And that is a glimpse into how BYU’s preparation for Gonzaga, the No. 2 team in the country, went this week. Everything was on the table — even six-on-five basketball — to help the Cougars get a feel for one of the sport’s most unique and treacherous challenges.

Between the size and speed of Gonzaga, there will be times where BYU feels discomfort Thursday night in Spokane. Even a level of unfairness. So, assistant coach Nick Robinson reasoned, why not mimic that in practice? Why complain about an extra man?

“[In all seriousness] it’ll really feel like there are five-and-a-half, six guys out there at times,” Robinson said, who played on the scout team himself to give the starters a different look.

“Gonzaga is really good. It’s our job as coaches to really help our guys be ready for the speed and physicality the best we can.”

BYU is not bashful about the challenge in front of it this week.

There is a reason why Gonzaga hasn’t lost a West Coast Conference game in 23 months. There is also a reason Gonzaga has made several recent trips to the Final Four and polished off nine-straight conference championships.

Much of it has to do with pace. Gonzaga, this season, ranks No. 11 in the nation when it comes to adjusted tempo, according to KenPom. Combine that with the second-most efficient offense in the country, and you get a juggernaut. Gonzaga averages nearly 88 points per game.

And if the pace wasn’t enough, you can also factor in the size of the roster. Drew Timme, Gonzaga’s All-American forward, is 6-foot-10. Chet Holmgren, a freshman preseason, third-team All-American, is 7-foot.

“The one thing about Gonzaga is you can’t [prepare],” BYU head coach Mark Pope said. “You can do your best mimic their pace, length, athleticism and skill. But you just can’t. The first time you are going to see it is 8 p.m. when the ball tips.”

Despite that, BYU is attempting to get ready.

Robinson was wearing a green practice jersey pretending to be Holmgren. He split his coaching duties with scout team duties. As he worked with front-court running mates Caleb Lohner and Fousseyni Traore, Robinson took out long foam swatters to mimic the length.

Freshman forward Paora Winitana did his part to recreate the physicality of Timme. At 6-foot-5, 242 pounds, Winitana is almost a half-a-foot smaller than Timme. But that did not stop BYU from acting as if Winitana was the same person.

In fact, Pope stopped practice Thursday to make this point. When Lohner helped Winitana off the floor, Pope blew the drill dead. In exasperation, he asked if Lohner would do that if it were Timme on the ground?

The answer, Lohner said, was no.

“Gonzaga is one of the best teams in the country,” Lohner said, who will likely have to guard Timme for a bit. “There are going to be times in the game where we are frustrated or things won’t go our way.”

BYU feels like it has a chance. It is No. 25 in KenPom. It is No. 30 in college basketball’s NET rankings. Both of those metrics are higher than last season at this time and put the program on the path to make the NCAA tournament.

BYU beat Gonzaga two years ago. But that was Gonzaga’s last conference loss.

It does not erase the challenge ahead.

One image that underscored this challenge for Pope was a graphic he saw while watching an ESPN broadcast. When he was watching film of Gonzaga, Pope saw the broadcast put up Timme’s offensive totals over a five-game span. Confused about when those five games were, Pope turned up the volume to hear the explanation. Turns out, he said, they were compiling Timme’s only losses at Gonzaga over a four-year run.

“That’s pretty incredible,” Pope said. “There’s only five teams. … You always want to play the best. They are the best. It’s the chase. It’s not just us. It’s every team in college basketball chasing Gonzaga.”