The BYU Cougars have split their regular season series against the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Both contests have been very, very close. BYU won in Spokane by one. Gonzaga won in Provo by three. Here are a few things for fans to watch for if the Cougars are going to win the rubber match.
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The referees have been huge in both games.
In Spokane, foul trouble sent Gonzaga's best player Domantas Sabonis to the bench. With 12:39 left in the 2nd half, Sabonis picked up his 4th foul. Gonzaga had an 11-point lead. The Cougars pounced on the opportunity outscoring the Zags 13-6 over the next five minutes and 17 seconds. By the time Sabonis had returned, momentum was on BYU's side. Plus, Sabonis couldn't protect the rim as usual with his four fouls. Over the next seven minutes, the Y would outscore the Bulldogs by six with Sabonis on the floor. Add in a Kyle Wiltjer choke at the free throw line and a Nate Austin swat and the Cougars finished the comeback. An unlikely comeback in the scenario that transpired. Had Sabonis not been issued his 4th so early on, the Cougars rally to victory never happens.
In Provo, foul trouble sent BYU and the WCC's best player Kyle Collinsworth to the bench. With 8:24 left in the 1st half, Collinsworth picked up his 2nd foul. BYU had a six-point lead. The Bulldogs feasted on the opportunity outscoring the Cougars 13-2 over the next five minutes and 28 seconds. By the time Collinsworth had returned, Gonzaga nursed a five-point lead. The Zags would never trail again. With Collinsworth on the floor that night, BYU was six points better than Gonzaga. Without KC, Gonzaga was nine points better than BYU. Add in a couple of clanked deep threes from Nick Emery and let's call it brotherly love from Josh Perkins and Gonzaga came away with the victory. Following the game, Dave Rose lamented leaving Collinsworth on the bench for as long as he did. Had Collinsworth not been issued his 2nd so early on, the Bulldogs may not have got the big road win.
Maybe this time around, on a neutral floor, fans won't remember the role referees played in the game. Hopefully.
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Monday night marks the 4th time in BYU's five seasons in the West Coast Conference that BYU will play Gonzaga in the conference tournament. The previous three conference tournament games have been ugly for the Y. The Zags have won all three games by double digits -- 19, 11, and 16.
So, what does Dave Rose's club have to do to advance past the Bulldogs to the tournament final?
Use matchups to their advantage.
In the previous two games, BYU has used 26 different lineups against Gonzaga. That's a lot in 80 minutes of play. The reason for huge variety in floor groupings has to do with Rose discovering and employing a new basketball identity with his team late in the season. In particular, the past seven games following the loss at home to Pacific. BYU has won six of those seven games while playing their best ball of the season. Dave Rose made to move to small ball. As such, of those 26 various lineups, only three of them played in both games versus the Bulldogs. BYU is a vastly different team now then it was during the January 14th contest in Spokane. So is Gonzaga, after all, they were nationally ranked on January 14th.
What do I mean by a move to small ball? In particular, it means Rose committed to Zac Seljaas at the four instead of the three. Thru the first 11 WCC contests, Seljaas' responsibilities were evenly split as he played at the three for 100 minutes and at the four for 101 minutes. In the last seven games, Seljaas has played only 24 minutes at the three; while playing 177 minutes at the four. Perhaps this change later in the season has to do with Seljaas' development as a defender and rebounder over the season. Seljaas' defense against Kyle Wiltjer in the Marriott Center clash was commendable. His ability to defend bigger players makes the move to small ball viable.
Of course, Seljaas' 48.7% shooting behind the arc and jaw dropping 67.3 eFG% make the Cougars more dangerous offensively. Seljaas at the four creates better floor spacing. Zac is a better passer than the traditional front court players, like Davis, Austin, and Kaufusi, optimizing the increased floor spacing.
Seljaas at the four is working!
A lineup comprised of Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Seljaas, and (Austin, Davis, or Kaufusi) was +19 against Gonzaga over 19:45 seconds. In WCC play, Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery Seljaas, and (Austin, Davis, or Kaufusi) are +86 in 158 minutes and 52 seconds. That's +0.58 points per minute better than their opponent or adjusted to show its effectiveness over 40 minutes, +23.3. Boom!
Positive results will come regardless of which big Coach Rose elects to pair with KC, Fischer, Emery, and Seljaas, but which player out of Austin, Davis, and Kaufusi is the best player at the five to matchup against Gonzaga?
Answer: Not Kyle Davis.
This answer is counterintuitive as Davis tends to be the best player to complete the lineup. The lineup has been most potent with Davis as the five. As such, he's received nearly 30 minutes more playing time in the small ball grouping.
However, the problem for Davis is game planning for Gonzaga
Kyle Davis with the small ball lineup is +2 in 5:03 vs. Gonzaga. Meanwhile, the contributions of Kaufusi and Austin are almost identical. The unit was +9 in 7:23 with Kaufusi and +8 in 7:19 with Austin.
Between 7'1" Ryan Edwards, 6'11" Domantas Sabonis, and 6'10" Kyle Wiltjer, the 6'8" Davis has had trouble defensively against the Zags. Davis also struggled on the boards in the last matchup against Gonzaga -- only bringing in two rebounds in 15 minutes of court time. In comparison, Austin had four rebounds in 16 minutes, while Kaufusi had five rebounds in 17 minutes. These are the primary issue with using Kyle Davis in the small ball lineup against Gonzaga. Defending the Zags big men and finding boards.
Another difference between Davis and Kaufusi/Austin comes in their usage rate. Davis uses 22.1% of all BYU possession in conference play when he is on the floor. Kaufusi uses 15%. Austin uses 8.6%. With Kaufusi/Austin on the floor, it frees up more possessions to go to Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, and Seljaas.
The significance here is that it is particularly important for the Cougar shooters to hit their shots when Kaufusi/Austin are in the small ball lineup. If Fischer, Emery, and Seljaas are hitting from the outside with Kaufusi/Austin, this lineup is particularly devastating. Without effective shooting and scoring from the guards and wings, it leaves BYU without a scoring option they feel comfortable with close to the basket.
Davis gives BYU a more balanced offensive attack in small ball lineups making the Cougars scoring prospects more bulletproof in those circumstances. However, against Gonzaga, the matchups make Davis more vulnerable defensively. Weighing the offensive benefits against the defensive losses along with previous performances should cause Coach Rose to place Davis on the bench more than his frontcourt teammates -- at least against Gonzaga. This is, of course, barring a Kyle Davis offensive explosion which would probably tilt the scales back in Davis' favor.
For more insight, take a look at this table that shows how all the lineup combinations -- that have played at least two minutes against the Zags -- have performed in terms of plus/minus.
|1||2||3||4||5||Total +/- vs. Gonzaga||Total Court Time vs. Gonzaga||Total +/- vs. WCC||Time vs. WCC|
Of note, when Seljaas is at the three against Gonzaga, BYU is -9. Seljaas at the four, +19.
One of the accomplishments Gonzaga has achieved against BYU is defeating the very good current starting lineup of Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Davis, and Kaufusi. This grouping is -4 in its nearly 10 minutes against the Zags, despite being +36 over in WCC play. If BYU is going to turn the tide and win a WCC tournament game against Gonzaga, the Cougars starting lineup is going to have to play winning basketball when they are on the floor.
Meanwhile, BYU's worst and most played lineup in WCC play of Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Davis, and Austin has almost entirely vanished since the game against Pacific. It recently reappeared in the last two games against Gonzaga and Santa Clara. Unsurprisingly, this lineup continued to play losing basketball. This grouping was -5 in nearly four minutes of play. Losing in their time on the floor against both Gonzaga and Santa Clara. The last time this lineup was better than their opponents was on January 21 at Loyola Marymount where they were three points better than LMU after seven minutes of play. This grouping is -34 in their last nine outings. Why Dave Rose would ever try this lineup out again is perplexing. It is a bad lineup. If fans see Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Davis, and Austin on the floor together Monday night, they should hold their breath. It almost certainly is going to be a bad stretch in the game for the Cougars.
The last item on personnel decisions is Jordan Chatman needs to be a factor. Chatman was terrific in Spokane. Chatman was not very good in Provo, perhaps a byproduct of his illness at the time. Chatman is called upon to play two different positions (three and four. Occasionally takes on the role of the one). Jordan can sub in for Emery at the three, or Seljaas at the four, or Fischer and slide Emery to the two, or even Collinsworth and slide Emery to the one. Chatman makes it possible for the Cougars to rest or cover for foul trouble without having to sacrifice small ball lineups. Generally, Chatman has been fantastic off the bench. His lone poor performance was his flu-riddled game vs. Gonzaga a little more than a week ago.
I expect, barring foul trouble, Collinsworth and Fischer to likely give a senior-led iron man game -- playing all 40 minutes. Or something very close to it. Emery and Seljaas will not be playing those kind of minutes. Nor will any other Cougar. That's when Chatman will need to lift the Cougars. Whether through his own scoring, facilitating others, rebounding, or forcing difficult shots, Jordan's minutes will be critical if the Cougars are going to advance to the tournament finals.
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While certain lineups will give BYU their best opportunity to win, it is all predicated on shooting. BYU must shoot the basketball well. Particularly from outside.
Gonzaga leads the NCAA in defending the three-point line. Their opponents this season are shooting just 28.6% from outside. Over the two games against the Bulldogs, BYU shot 13-for-49 which comes out to 26.5%.
At a minimum, BYU needs to shoot 33.3% from behind the arc; making 1-in-3 takes. This season, when teams shoot 33.3% or better from three against Gonzaga, Mark Few's team is 5-4. When teams shoot 33.2% or worse from deep against Gonzaga, the Bulldogs are 18-2. BYU won earlier this season shooting 17.6% at the Kennel. (17.6% is BYU's worst three-point shooting performance of the season.) I don't expect they can find another win against Gonzaga with poor perimeter shooting.
When BYU shoots 33.2% or worse for three, they are 6-7. BYU shoots 33.3% or better from outside, they are 17-2.
Hitting the three-point shot is crucial for the Cougars. Fortunately, they are shooting 41.6% from three since the move to small ball. But it is more difficult to hit three-pointers against Gonzaga's defense than any team in the country. If the three-ball isn't falling, then BYU will need to be excellent at *gulp* the free throw line. I like BYU's chances more at having a big day behind the arc than to be focused and steady at the stripe.
So, again, Hitting the three-point shot is critical.
Beating Gonzaga is always difficult, but for this BYU team and its current identity, the objectives are pretty simple. Play an active small ball, rebound, make key shots, and for heaven sakes, Collinsworth needs to stay out of foul trouble.