BYU’s rivalry with Gonzaga has defined the WCC era for the Cougars. This week at the conference tournament could add an important chapter

A rivalry that has shaped BYU’s decade could help decide its NCAA tourney chances

Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard (3) dunks in front of BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in Spokane, Wash. Gonzaga won 110-84. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

Editor’s note This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Provo • It is 8:17 p.m. and 17 degrees outside the Marriott Center, and Tanner Moulton is shaking his hands, fighting for any sort of feeling. The sensation in his feet went out hours ago. His fingers are hanging on by a thread.

It doesn’t help that he has been outside for 24 hours already, waiting in a tent for tickets to BYU’s game against Gonzaga the next day. But Moulton, a junior at BYU, isn’t complaining. This is the price of admission to see Gonzaga play. Every year thousands of students in Provo line up almost 48 hours in advance to see the rivalry.

“Gonzaga is our second-biggest rival [next to Utah],” Moulton says. “Gonzaga only comes to Provo one more time before we move to the Big 12. We are going to miss this.”

There are few other rivalries at BYU that bring out this level of fandom. And for the basketball team, there is no other rivalry that has defined the program more over the last decade. Gonzaga has sharpened and pushed BYU to NCAA tournament berths and also played the role of spoiler. It is a program that, nearly single-handedly, has prepared BYU for what comes next in the Big 12.

But before BYU ventures off to the most competitive basketball conference in the country, Gonzaga will have a few final meetings with the Cougars. Almost certainly, none would be bigger than if the two meet in the West Coast Conference tournament this week. If BYU doesn’t win two games to make it Monday night, Selection Sunday will be a nerve-racking experience. But if the Cougars and Bulldogs do meet in the semifinals on Monday, a win would clinch BYU’s spot in the NCAA Tournament.

The odds of BYU beating Gonzaga are long. But they so often are in this rivalry. It’s why the Bulldogs are the benchmark in the West Coast Conference era for BYU. It’s why it is worth exploring each time these two teams meet.

An uneven rivalry

BYU will leave for the Big 12 in 2023, meaning Gonzaga only has one more guaranteed trip to Provo after this season.

It is a rivalry that started in 2011 and has seen Gonzaga take 20-of-27 meetings. Yet, despite the lopsided nature, games against Gonzaga have produced some of the most indelible moments in BYU’s basketball history. Like in 2020, when BYU took down 31-0 Gonzaga thanks to Yoeli Child’s 28 points. Or in 2011, when Jimmer Freddette scored 34 points to send BYU to the Sweet 16 over Gonzaga — its deepest run since 1981.

This particular chapter in February would not be one of those memorable meetings. Gonzaga soundly beat BYU 90-57 last month, a game essentially over within the first eight minutes.

But, for BYU, this rivalry has been about more than the score. It is about the thousands of students camping out, a tradition only Gonzaga brings out. It is about the 18,385 people in the stands trying to get one of their last glimpses at a conference rival.

It is also about the basketball program getting an up-close-and-personal look at the Bulldogs, a program that represents everything Pope wants BYU to be someday.

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)

Game day prep

To get a sense of what this rivalry has meant for BYU over the past decade, you only need to spend a day around the Marriott Center as the Cougars prepare for the Zags.

It is early morning on a Saturday in early February, just under 12 hours until tip-off, and the coaching staff is assembled in the annex next to the Marriott Center looking over Friday’s practice film.

Outside, the students’ tents are visible. One student, Jayden Nguyen, says he woke up to condensation dripping from the dome of his tent. His breath had frozen overnight, then started to melt onto him when the sun came out.

But inside the meeting room, BYU coach Mark Pope is already hot looking at concepts he feels his team missed at shootaround on Friday.

So much of what BYU does is centered on its conference rival Gonzaga. Even its rebounding philosophy — “hit first, hit second” — is built upon preparing for Gonzaga’s size.

“It shows how much these Zags are killing us,” Pope says.

And on Saturday morning, Pope and the coaching staff are particularly concerned about limiting All-American Drew Timme’s touches around the rim. When BYU lost to Gonzaga earlier this year, Timme had 30 points and went 13 of 14 from the field.

At shootaround later that day, about five hours before the game, the coaches emphasize this. They also go through a series of actions Gonzaga runs most frequently. The two assistants in charge of the scout tell the team Gonzaga has run one play 22 times in the last six games. The team is bound to see it at least once on Saturday.

The last thing the coaches like to go over is adjustments, especially for Gonzaga. No matter what is prepared, Gonzaga will do things not many other teams can do. How will BYU react when Timme goes on a run of 12 straight points? Or what happens when Gonzaga’s other All-American, Chet Holmgren, hits a couple of threes and does what only a 7-foot-2 player can do?

These adjustments are what will make BYU a better program in the long run. Preparing for Gonzaga, and competing against it two or three times a year, helps BYU become the Top 25 team it wants to be. As Pope finishes his third year, the program’s development against teams like Gonzaga is a good indicator of how it will transition to the Big 12 — the best conference in college basketball.

“It is a unique gift for us that nobody else in the country gets,” Pope said of having Gonzaga in the conference. “We play them more than anyone else.”

‘These fans are crazy’

Alex Barcello is the first one out of the locker room about 67 minutes before the game. The student section of 6,000 is waiting for him, roaring at the first sight of their senior leader. Barcello sends the crowd into a collective frenzy when he makes the “Hang-10″ BYU hand-sign to the crowd.

Moments later, Holmgren comes out with his Gonzaga jersey already on. In an instant, the cheer turns to a boo. Jack Cavagnino, a Gonzaga fan who drove from Spokane, watches this and shakes his head.

“This building is special when this rivalry plays here,” he says. “I drove down here because this is close to the last time. And BYU has beat us here before.”

Down on the floor, more Gonzaga players trickle in. Julian Strawther, a sophomore guard who didn’t play in front of fans last season due to COVID-19, looks over at an assistant coach with his eyes wide.

“These fans are crazy,” said Strawther, who would end up scoring 19 points in 25 minutes.

A pair of fans near the baseline say it all. A man in a Gonzaga jersey is sitting next to a man wearing a BYU “Big 12″ hat. They are soaking it in, knowing the history of the rivalry and its finite lifespan.

Gonzaga center Chet Holmgren (34) blocks a shot by BYU forward Atiki Ally Atiki (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A crushing blow

It doesn’t take long for Gonzaga to dismantle BYU. After a 5-0 run by the Cougars to start the game, the visitors proceed to go on a 21-4 run to quiet the crowd and cruise to a 33-point win.

BYU is undermanned and it shows. Without starting guard Te’Jon Lucas, Barcello struggles to find his shot. The rest of the offense limps to 57 points, its lowest point total all year.

“We are doubting and questioning ourselves right now,” Pope says, knowing BYU was nowhere near Gonzaga’s level, something that will have to change quickly ahead of the WCC Tournament this week.

But after the game, BYU royalty is all around, knowing this is close to the final time they’ll see Gonzaga play locally. Danny Ainge, the CEO of the Utah Jazz and a former BYU basketball player, talks to Gonzaga coach Mark Few outside of the locker room. Former BYU quarterback, and current New York Jets player, Zach Wilson takes pictures with fans.

Timme ends the night by blowing kisses to the BYU student section. It’s returned with jeers from a fanbase disappointed and tired from the last 24 hours. But knowing he will likely never be back in Provo, he smiles and walks off. This is a fitting goodbye for him, just as much as it is for the fans.

After all, there are only a couple more left. Maybe one this week. Maybe another season. Then it is on to the Big 12 and a new chapter.

“It’s been great,” Few said earlier this year of the series with BYU, noting he hopes the teams can schedule something in the future. “They are a great, worthy opponent.”