The Zags’ toughest games, for a couple of reasons, have all been outside of the Kennel. Oregon and Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis happened off the North American mainland in the Bahamas. The series against Washington and Arizona — which have been alternating between home, away and sometimes neutral sites — were away year this year. And that North Carolina game here in Spokane was an electric atmosphere, but the Tar Heels are worse than they’ve been in ages.
Santa Clara and BYU, on the other hand, are better than they’ve been in ages and they’re both visiting Spokane this week.
Since joining the West Coast Conference in 2011, the Zags and Cougars have met 21 times, with Gonzaga posting a 16-5 record against BYU. The only team in the league to do better against the Bulldogs than BYU is arch-rival Saint Mary’s, who has won six games during that span.
While the records are nearly identical, and the rivalry with Saint Mary’s has a much longer history, BYU has a strong case for being the bigger villain. When the Cougars and Zags tip-off on Saturday it will be the fourth time that BYU has come to Spokane as an unranked team going up against a top-five ranked Gonzaga squad. That’s basically a surefire recipe for a loss for any team in the country, except for the Cougars.
In the regular season finale in 2015 the Zags, ranked No. 3 in the country at the time, lost to BYU. Two years later, again in the regular season finale, the Cougars went from mean to evil by defeating No. 1 ranked and undefeated Gonzaga, ruining a perfect season mere moments before its completion.
Saturday, the Cougars will once again get a shot at the No. 1 ranked team in the country here in Spokane, and this year’s squad is better than any of the teams who have found success against Gonzaga in the past.
BYU ranks 32nd in the NET, the NCAA’s tool for evaluating every team in the country, which means as of now they’re a near-lock to make the NCAA Tournament. In KenPom, a popular predictive metric based upon analytics, the Cougars rank 26th nationally, which is as high as they’ve been at any point in any season since their first in the WCC.
Before Gonzaga goes up against that, however, they’ll have to face a Santa Clara team off to its best start to a season since the 1970s.
The Broncos (15-3) have lost 19 straight games to Gonzaga but are riding high right now. Santa Clara doesn’t have a single bad loss on their resume — Stanford, Nevada and San Francisco and all were on the road — and just picked up a massive resume win on the road against Saint Mary’s.
The Broncos, under fourth year head coach Herb Sendek, are ahead of schedule with their rebuilding process. This team of freshmen, sophomores and juniors — there is just one senior on the roster, and he hasn’t played a single minute all season — was supposed to be this good next season, but here they are now sitting in second place in the league standings. They got there by knocking off the traditional second place team last Saturday, and now they get a shot at the team who is always in first.
Santa Clara has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain on Thursday. Same goes for BYU on Saturday. There’s no shame in losing to Gonzaga, especially in Spokane. Simply playing a close game with the Zags will turn heads nationally, but pulling off an upset would raise eyebrows and set off alarms. Both of these teams are very good — better than they’ve been in years — and have legitimate postseason expectations. This should be a scary week here in Spokane, but a fun one too. Zag fans have spent all year watching the best games from afar, now we finally get to see them up close.