COMMENTARY – BYU plays at Gonzaga Saturday night in the McCarthey Athletic Center (affectionately known as The Kennel). The Cougars have won three straight games at Gonzaga and have generally been a minor thorn in the side of the Zags for years. BYU beats Gonzaga enough times to remind the Bulldogs they’re not perfect, but not enough times to keep them from attaining their goals (WCC title, NCAA Tournament run).
And although it means little in the grand scheme of things for Dave Rose and the BYU basketball program’s ultimate success, it is a banner Cougar fans can carry with them (“Hey, Gonzaga went 37-2 last year and played for the National Championship and one of those two losses was to us!”).
Clearly, BYU gets up for its annual trip to Spokane and the energy and intensity has paid off. The Cougars are the only team to have won at Gonzaga in each of three straight meetings there ever.
But there’s just one problem for BYU – they have a game tonight at Loyola Marymount first.
Overlooking an opponent is a classic sports problem. Teams figuratively circle a date on a calendar in which they’ll face that one special opponent, and then get beaten by a lesser opponent the game before.
And while Loyola Marymount is a much less-talented team than BYU, the Cougars had better beware. Last season, the Cougars were one week away from a home date with the then No. 1-ranked Bulldogs and laid an egg at Santa Clara. Two years ago, BYU lost to Pepperdine just 10 days before an important game against a ranked Saint Mary’s team. And three years ago, just before a crucial game against Saint Mary’s, the Waves stunned the Cougars once again.
So what happens when a good team looks past an opponent with a big game just on the horizon?
In today’s day and age, a lot of scouting goes into playing basketball. When teams have games in quick succession (like the Thursday-Saturday trip this week for BYU), coaches are faced with a tough decision. Do I scout and practice for my Thursday opponent, knowing we’ll only have one day (Friday) to get ready for the Saturday game, or do we watch film and do scouting equally for both games, knowing that a lot of the info and tendencies won’t be used on Thursday.
Most of the coaches I’ve known take the former choice, prepping hard for the Thursday opponent and then cramming a week’s worth of prep into one day for the Saturday opponent. The exception comes when the coach feels like his team will likely win the Thursday game without as much prep time, and then a little Saturday scouting and practicing is snuck in there.
Overlooking an opponent usually happens in this scenario.
There’s no doubt BYU has a better basketball team than Loyola Marymount. The Cougars are 18-5 overall and 7-3 in the West Coast Conference, while LMU comes in with a poor 6-15 overall record (1-9 in the WCC). Just two weeks ago, BYU trounced the Lions 82-67 in the Marriott Center. The Cougars had virtually no bench help, but the starters still dominated, going up by 17 at half and stretching the lead to 22 at one point. In fact, BYU has won 10 straight games against Loyola-Marymount, including three straight in Gersten Pavilion.
So LMU would certainly qualify as an opponent BYU could do less prep for with Gonzaga coming up on Saturday.
But don’t do it! Over the years, I’ve had dozens of coaches tell me that the most important game on the schedule is the next one. No matter what happens in Spokane on Saturday, a loss on Thursday would just about kill any NCAA Tournament hopes the Cougars have left. A loss at Gonzaga would be painful. A loss at Loyola-Marymount would be fatal.
The Cougars need to get hot. They have a good record, but (barring a WCC tournament run) it’s not good enough to get them into the NCAAs. However, a few quality wins may just do the trick.
Of course, a couple of bad losses would have the opposite effect. With eight regular-season games left, including two against Gonzaga, BYU still holds its fate on its own hands. As long as the Cougars don’t overlook anybody.
Tonight – BYU at Loyola Marymount, 9 p.m. (MST) on Root Sports
Saturday – BYU at Gonzaga, 8 p.m. (MST) on ESPN2
Blue Blood is a sports column written by Andy Griffin. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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