Provo provocation

There’ll be about 19,000 of them, those famously fair-minded BYU fans packing the Marriott Center when Saint Mary’s comes to town Thursday night. They’ll be smelling blood after their beloved Cougars redeemed themselves with a solid 88-77 win over Pepperdine last Saturday. They’ll be high (if a Mormon can be called “high”) on their team’s 16-game home winning streak which has put BYU in its preferred WCC position: reeling on the edge of elimination at 7-3, but counting on a late-season push to make things right.

In another words, ready to give a warm Utah welcome to the boys from Moraga.

For the Gaels, this is another hurdle in their ongoing struggle to convince critics that the 2015-16 Saint Mary’s team is different from its predecessors in the previous two seasons —  both of which lost to BYU in Provo. For the most part, Randy Bennett’s Gaels have accomplished that goal by beating Stanford, UC Irvine and Gonzaga at home and coming within a Jabari Bird three-pointer of toppling Cal in Berkeley. They sit alone atop the WCC at 9-1 (18-2 overall), and just outside the major college polls’ top 25 rankings.

They know that their lofty perch is as precarious as a tightrope walker in a hurricane, and that beating BYU on the road is another “must” if they are to ensure an at-large NCAA Tournament bid (failing an automatic bid for winning the WCC Tournament). Their previous game, a 68-65 win over Pacific that was closer than the score indicates, can be read as a toughening road experience for a mostly home-bound team or an indication that they are vulnerable outside the Moraga town limits.

What’s gonna happen?

Of the many variables in Thursday night’s contest, the two main ones involve BYU leader Kyle Collinsworth and Saint Mary’s leader Joe Rahon. Calling Collinsworth BYU’s leader verges on massive understatement considering the role he has assumed following the graduation of all-time BYU leading scorer Tyler Haws (yes, he outscored Saint Jimmer). With Haws threatening to blow out any opponent any time, Collinsworth was more of an annoying afterthought in the Cougars’ attack. Although he set an NCAA record for triple-doubles, Collinsworth was the second most worrisome thing about BYU before this year.

If he’s not the whole enchilada now, he is certainly the main course. His performance in the Pepperdine win was indicative of his importance, as he scored 24 points and handed out 10 assists, a mere double-double for the player who has brought the triple-double to prominence in college hoops. Although he pulled down only four rebounds against the Waves, he became the school’s all-time leading rebounder at 923 with many games to go this season (by comparison, the Gaels’ all-time board man, Diamon Simpson, grabbed 1130, but he wasn’t a point guard).

As an aside, Collinsworth is a top 10 finalist for the Bob Cousy Award given annually to the country’s best point guard.

And yet, given all that success, Collinsworth was the most frustrated Cougar when BYU fell to Saint Mary’s 85-74 on New Year’s Eve. His line of eight points on 4-15 shooting, six boards and six assists was paltry compared to what he is capable of, and was a huge contributing factor in the Gaels’ win. What happened?

Joe Rahon happened.

Rahon to the rescue

Gael fans are used to Rahon’s success leading the offense. He carried the attack against Stanford and Cal, darting into the lane among various very tall defenders and making them look silly with a variety of lay-ups and runners. He rallied his teammates when all seemed lost against Gonzaga, and repeated those heroics against Pacific with two crucial three-pointers book-ending a dramatic steal. Yet, for all his offensive talents, Rahon the defender was the main story in the Gaels’ New Year’s Eve win.

He simply denied Collinsworth entry to the paint, where the Cougar leader usually bends his 6-5 frame around defenses for lay-ups and short jumpers. Not a proficient outside shooter, Collinsworth was a duck out of water in the Moraga match-up. Rahon took him out of his game.

Can he do it again? College teams succeed by adopting to whatever obstacles opponents throw up. The BYU coach, Dave Rose, may not look like a graduate of Houston’s famous Phi Slama Jama attack under the leadership of Clyde “The Glide” Drexler, but he was, indeed, on those teams. And although BYU’s offense is not exactly like the organized chaos of Houston in 1982-84, it is not that different, either. The Cougars play fast, and substitute three-point marksmen for the jam-masters of Rose’s alma mater.

Rose has never been head coach anywhere but BYU, and his 273-95 record there attests to his savvy and experience. He and Collinsworth will certainly have a few wrinkles to throw at the Gaels, and especially Rahon, on Thursday night. They might try to loosen up the Gaels inside by turning their three-point experts Chase Fischer (23 against the Gaels last time) and Nick (Sucker Punch) Emery loose early.

They may try to exploit the foul-prone Gael post tandem of Dane Pineau and Jock Landale with forwards Kyle Davis and Corbin Kaufusi banging inside. It may be something completely different, or it could be what they usually do but with more confidence and speed that comes with playing at home in front of a loud, raucous and unfriendly crowd.

The Gaels’ Bennett has been around, too, compiling a 323-147 record in his 14 seasons at Saint Mary’s. He knows the Gaels probably won’t shoot as well as they did in Moraga (56% from the floor, 42% from three-point range), and will undoubtedly count on defending the sometimes-dominant BYU offense instead of outscoring it. Whether Rahon is once again a hero or someone else steps up, the Gaels are in for a hellacious battle to stay on top of the WCC standings.

In the photo above, BYU super-guard Kyle Collinsworth does against Santa Clara what he wasn’t able to do against Saint Mary’s when the teams met on New Year’s Eve — free-wheel into the paint. Photo courtesy of Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo.


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