Round 2: What’s the same, different heading into BYU basketball vs SMC

(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images) /

BYU basketball travels to Moraga to take on the Saint Mary’s Gaels Thursday night. It’s round two for the conference rivals, and a chance for the Cougars to take one from the WCC frontrunner.

For BYU basketball, it’s a week of second chances.

The Pacific Tigers that await on Saturday are a chance to take a bad taste out of BYU fans’ mouths. But first, the Cougars have to seize one of their few remaining chances to shock a ranked team in Randy Bennett’s Gaels.

The game also represents the first step of the second lap in conference play. Both teams have changed, and circumstances have changed, and Y fans sure hope the results change, but some things stay stalwart.

What’s the same

Jock Landale. In fact, it’s the 6-foot-11 center’s consistency that has put him in the national conversation this year. The Gaels have plowed through tight games with BYU, Gonzaga, and Pacific mainly off the strength of the Aussie’s steady pounding. His power and soft touch remain constant, even late in close games.

If the Cougars hope to take only their second road win in Moraga since they joined the WCC, it will have to be over Landale.

The dynamic duo. While the San Diego game represents a statistical drop for both players, Yoeli Childs and Elijah Bryant have proven themselves as a potent inside-outside combo that can hurt you a lot of ways. Either or both are capable of having a superlative game, and making a play to turn the momentum to the side of the Cougars.

Two conference losses, literally two shots away from wins, and either Childs or Bryant could easily be that one bucket difference.

Defensive intensity vs offensive efficiency. The two primary emphases of the Cougs and Gaels respectively will make a second clash. Last time, it bought Saint Mary’s the W, as BYU just couldn’t match the experience and savvy the Gaels brought to bare, letting the game slip in overtime.

But Cougar “kills” vs Gael shot-clock shaving will be a central story yet again.

What’s different

The venue. Although absent its usual complement of students on Dec 30’s meeting, the Marriott Center represents an undeniable advantage to the home team, even above the normal highest-in-sports home court advantage that college basketball enjoys. And frankly, the Cougars have only stolen one win at McKeon Pavilion in six conference tries (take that, Dellavedova).

Any win there is an accomplishment.

Dalton Nixon. BYU basketball’s swingman off the bench is far more valuable than his stat line would indicate, and he’s finally healthy again. Dalt’s skillset is versatile, and he’s a capable player in almost every area of offense and defense. Add to that, Nixon has a knack of snatching up 50/50 balls and offensive rebounds, and making a quick turn to the hoop that draws fouls.

Getting fouled by Gael bigs and hitting free throws could be a small difference that turns the game.

TJ Haws. Perhaps this isn’t a change so much as a return. The TJ that shambled through a 3-10 shooting game and only took two 3’s last time against Saint Mary’s has taken a bow. Instead, building steadily until it culminated in his 24 point outburst against San Diego Jan 20, the TJ that people nicknamed “the Ginger Mamba” has cut in.

The way he takes crossover stop-on-a-dime threes from 25 feet and attacks the lane, finishing or dishing like a stage magician, is the electrifying kind of shot creation that can (and has) flipped a game. No 1 Gonzaga bore firsthand witness.

Will enough change to get the Cougars a win?

If the answer were clear, it wouldn’t be this exciting.

But certainly, enough has changed (and stayed the same) for BYU basketball fans to have hope they can steal one from the leader of the WCC pack. And if they can win there, there’s no reason they can’t also win in a match against the Zags.

And if they can also best Gonzaga, who knows? A conference tourney title might not be out of the question.