There were a lot of heroes for the BYU Cougars in Spokane Saturday night. Halford continued his hot streak, Kaufusi showed up as the rim protector Cougar fans have been waiting for, freshman Ryan Andrus nailed two free throws with the game in the balance, and, of course, Mr. Everything Kyle Collinsworth once again filled up the stat sheet before fouling out on a bogus WCC-ref-style call.
But the biggest winner of the night was head coach Dave Rose and his genius game plan.
Rewind to December 27, 2014. Gonzaga came away from Provo with a come-from-behind win, led by 8th year (it seems) starter Kevin Pangos’s 21 points and Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer’s 24. The game plan in Provo was what anyone would do when outsized down low: they tried to harass the big men by doubled double teaming them when they got the ball on the blocks. But the plan backfired when, time and time again, the GU bigs kicked it out to their long-time leader, Pangos, who nailed 5 game-changing three pointers.
Fool me once.
Saturday night in the Kennel, BYU held Pangos to 8 points and Wiltjer to 4. Wait, hold up. That can’t be right. Yup. I double checked. The two WCC player of the year candidates combined to shoot 5-of-23 at home, where the Zags hadn’t lost since about the Civil War era.
The reason? Well, there are lots of reasons (see above), but perhaps the most important one was Coach Rose’s game plan. He learned his lesson from the heart-breaking loss in Provo and didn’t double team the post in Spokane, instead choosing to trust his young frontcourt and focus on locking down the perimeter. It was a big gamble, since BYU’s young post players had been unproven and inconsistent at best. But freshman Corbin Kaufusi made his coach look great by chalking up 3 blocks, at least that many altered shots, and 2 steals. In straight-man defense, Kaufusi and company held their own against one of the nation’s best frontcourts.
In the backcourt, BYU closely guarded Pangos and Wiltjer, and the two stars were visibly frustrated as they had to expend great effort for most of their points. Pangos knocked down a few of his patented floaters, but most of his shots were blocked or altered and several of his passes were tipped or stolen when he entered the lane. Most importantly, Pangos and Wiltjer saw very few open three point shots, which led to them to shoot a combined 2-for-9 from beyond the arch.
The game plan paid dividends on the glass as well. The conventional wisdom is that straight-up man defense is best for rebounding, and Saturday night proved that to be true for the Cougars. BYU players and coaches have been emphasizing rebounding for months, and in Spokane the Cougars continued their unbeaten streak when they outrebound their opponent. The revolving door of BYU big men made an obvious effort to box out their guys (who were bigger than them, for the most part), and the result was a beautiful display of team rebounding. Kaufusi brought down 6 and Collinsworth contributed a team-high 8, and guards Halford, Tyler Haws, and Chase Fischer collected 4 boards each. When BYU rebounds, they win, and Saturday night was no exception.
Make no mistake, the stars had to align for the Cougars to pull off this monumental upset, especially considering the lock-down Gonzaga put on Haws. Lots of balls bounced BYU’s way, a slew of BYU role players played the games of their lives, and the Zags got into foul some trouble. But Coach Rose put his team in position to take full advantage of the astronomical alignment by drawing up a game plan that was nothing short of genius.
It’s too soon to know if Saturday’s win was enough to get BYU into the tournament, but this much is for sure: Dave Rose made the selection committee’s job a whole lot harder (or perhaps easier).
I’m with Tom Holmoe: I hope Dave Rose is with BYU for another 15 years.