The BYU basketball team has a big challenge in a tiny space on Thursday night. The Cougars (11–4, 2–0 WCC) take on No. 19 Saint Mary’s (12–1, 2–0 WCC) in the Gaels’ gym.
While the gym pales in comparison to Marriott Center’s 19,000-seat gym (Saint Mary’s McKeon Pavilion seats a mere 3,500), BYU sophomore Nick Emery says it is a tough gym to play in.
“It’s an electric atmosphere, but I think it’s a great opportunity for us,” Emery said. “We’re going into a Top 25 team. It’s a great opportunity for us as young guys to be able to go into Saint Mary’s a small, but really, really tough place to win. But we’re going to be ready and we’ve been prepared pretty well to win.”
Emery is one of four players who have played in the close quarters gym where the fans explode with noise at the smallest accomplishment. BYU sophomore Eric Mika remembers the energy of the gym from before his two-year LDS mission and says it’s hard to prepare the young Cougars who haven’t experienced McKeon Pavilion for the atmosphere.
“I don’t know if there is any way that you can perfectly prepare for hostility in a gym,” Mika said. “We’re practicing in the annex to get that feel of a smaller gym, which I think is definitely going to be important for us. I think it’s just going to have to be a mind set that turns on right from the get-go.”
Both Emery and Mika are aware of the challenge Saint Mary’s team presents because of the Gaels disciplined execution.
“Saint Mary’s runs very simple stuff, but they run it to perfection,” Emery said. “I don’t think these guys understand really how well they’ve run their stuff. I think our scout team in practice has done a great job at running Saint Mary’s things. You can’t really explain what it is going into it, but it’s going to be a challenge and we’re going to be ready for it.”
The biggest concern for the Cougars is Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale. The 6-foot-11 junior leads the Gaels with 17.6 average points per game and 9.7 rebounding while shooting 63.8 percent from the field. BYU center Eric Mika said one thing he observed while watching film this week is “everything goes through him.” BYU coach Dave Rose says Landale is the biggest change from the 2015–16 Gaels to 2016–17 team.
“I think that probably the biggest difference is the fact that this inside player, Landale, that he is so much improved,” Rose said. “His ability to find the other guys. It’s pretty similar with the other guys finding him. … His ability to catch it and then read what the other team is doing and then finding the other guys I think is really improved.”
In the past, BYU has tried to control the pace of the game as the Gaels like to slow down the pace, but the Cougars are a fast-paced team. However, this year Rose says there is something more important for his team to execute than the pace.
“I think what’s really important to us is our shot selection more than the pace. … Our ability to speed up this game is not as important as it’s been in the past.” — Dave Rose, BYU basketball coach
“I think what’s really important to us is our shot selection more than the pace,” Rose said. “We need to get the ball in the paint. We need to get the pass to the post or we need to drive it in there and then you obviously need to hit big shots. Our ability to speed up this game is not as important as it’s been in the past.”
If the last six games are any indicator on shooting discrepancy, then the Cougars have a chance to win. In the last six games, BYU has average 45.73 percent from beyond the arc. At the beginning of the season, the 3-point savvy Cougars struggled to surpass 30 percent from behind the 3-point line.
“I think the guys are getting a lot more familiar with each other, but I also believe they’ve been working hard,” Rose said. “They spend a lot of time at it. And I think we’re taking better shots. I think that most of these 3 points shots are coming from the high posts back out. … Right now the emphasis with this team is to play to our strengths and our strength is to pound that ball inside. Hopefully, our big guys will keep throwing it out.”
Watch the Cougars take on the Gaels at 9 p.m. MST on ESPNU.