BYU men’s basketball loses to Gonzaga in latest rough outing

The Cougars have lost four straight games, the last two of which have been at home.

Gonzaga forward Anton Watson (22) goes to the basket as BYU forward Fousseyni Traore (45) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Provo • Two hours before the BYU men’s basketball team faced off against the Gonzaga Bulldogs, the ROC student section already started to fill in. Fans camped outside of the Marriott Center in anticipation for this game, like they do practically every time the Bulldogs come to town.

The students roared when the Cougars came onto the court for warmups and when the starting lineup was introduced. But they didn’t have much to cheer about after that.

BYU (17-8, 5-5 West Coast Conference) scored the first five points of the game but was then hit with a tidal wave after that en route to a 90-57 loss Saturday. It marked four straight losses for the Cougars, who played without guard Te’Jon Lucas due to injury precaution and started Seneca Knight in his place.

Gideon George led the way for BYU with 14 points and made 3 of 5 from the 3-point line, but fouled out of the game. Knight shot just 3 of 15 but scored 13 points. Alex Barcello struggled from the field, scoring nine points on 4-of-14 shooting. Fousseyni Traore had six points, seven rebounds and three steals.

No. 2 Gonzaga dominated almost every facet of the game. One of the most telling statistics was the Bulldogs blocked nine shots, while the Cougars made 21. They also outrebounded BYU by a factor of eight.

Beating Gonzaga is about as difficult a task in college basketball as there is, so no one would realistically blame the Cougars for dropping both contests this season. The issue lies in what led up to Saturday’s blowout loss.

The Cougars have been in a funk for two whole weeks now. It started when they lost games against Santa Clara and Pacific, the latter of which is one of the worst teams in the WCC. It left them without a single vote in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll after being just outside it the week prior.

At least the aforementioned losses were by a combined four points. BYU lost by 14 to San Francisco, a decidedly better team than Santa Clara or Pacific. But even then, Pope said that his team has lost its identity. Earlier this season, the Cougars were already going through an identity shift after losing Gavin Baxter and to a season-ending knee injury.

Pope said his team will again have to find other ways to win after how the last two weeks have transpired.

“We’re going to have to find some new creative answers,” Pope said. “We have to reinvent ourselves a little bit.”

BYU coach Mark Pope speaks with players during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

BYU was already going through a tough time entering this week. Barcello, Lucas and a few other select players met at Barcello’s apartment last Sunday to discuss what was going on with the team. Lucas said they were looking for complete honesty with each other in those conversations. Pope described the conversations that involved the entire team as “over-the-top emotional.”

So where does BYU go from here? It has just five games left in the regular season before the WCC Tournament, the first three of which are on the road. Unless they can win most or even all of those games, the Cougars look to be firmly on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament picture.

Pope said that at this moment, it’s not practical to think of what could transpire in the next five games. He’s not even thinking about the next game on Thursday. His mind is on what can be done earlier than that.

“We’re meeting [on] Monday morning at 8 a.m. and we’re going to start again with the reinventing ourselves,” Pope said.

Whether five games is enough time for the Cougars to find answers remains to be seen. Pope likes to keep his public comments largely positive and never misses an opportunity to stress how much he believes his team will right the ship.

But Pope also revealed that the armor is starting to crack little by little.

“I think belief is everything, and right now we’re questioning ourselves,” coach Mark Pope said after the game. “We just are. It’s just the truth.”