The Zags are looking at possibly coasting to the tournament. It's non-conference schedule is almost done (save for an unranked Memphis team), and the rest of the WCC is looking weaker and more flat than it has in the past.
BYU starters Tyler Haws (ankle) and Nate Austin (hamstring) are dealing with injuries, and Saint Mary's is in the home stretch of sanctions for recruiting violations. Meanwhile, other WCC teams are improving their records, but it's unclear whether the conference is getting better or their non-conference schedule has been easier.
Battle in Seattle (California Polytechnic State University)
Cal Poly Whoniversity? Cal Poly is in the Big West Conference, along with a bunch of other barely-division 1 California programs, and Hawaii. They are 5-4 on the season and 1-4 away (yes, battle is technically neutral, but it's really an away game for anyone but UW). They made it to the big dance last year, but it was on an automatic nod winning their conference tournament. They entered the round of 64 as a 16-seed. No, you didn't miss history. They lost. There's good reason lower bowl tickets are going for $35 a piece this year.
Cal Poly comes in with an abysmal 25% shooting from the promise land against the Zags 40%, and challenges the Zags 61% from within the paint with their 42%. Offensively, the Zags are looking at a blowout. Defensively, the size mismatch against their starting line-up should make this a game where Coach Few might be thinking about letting the younger guys get some extra minutes. Cal Poly has two at 6'9", one at 6'8", and the rest below. Luke Meikle stands at 6'9" (sound familiar?) but he is redshirted due to his transfer from Gonzaga. Brian Bennett puts up points against average defenses but will likely be overwhelmed by three Zags taller and more athletic than him. Aleks Abrams clocks in at 6'8", but averages 1.5 ppg and probably won't come off the bench at all in Seattle. The only advantage Cal Poly has is a taller back court, but height in the back is likely to have little impact against what is roundly considered one of the best backcourts in the division 1 basketball.
Cal Poly can't shoot from the outside or inside, and the Zags will likely dominate the post on both sides of the ball. Unless he's a really hot date who takes you to the Chihuly exhibit, this won't be a battle to remember.
At BYU December 27th
Missing Firepower. Nate Austin (hamstring),
Eric Mika (mission), Tyler Haws (ankle)
With or without Haws, it looks like BYU will be without post-presence and rim-protector Nate Austin. Even with Austin though, the numbers would favor a win for the Zags. They will travel to Provo ranked in the AP top 10, Przemek Karnowski has some muscular help in the post this time with Domantas Sabonis showing immediate talent and athleticism as a true freshman, and Kevin Pangos' turfy-toes are 100%. Nonetheless, BYU always seems to think they're assured of the upset, and that keeps 20,000 fans loud and proud until the buzzer. Utah (13) experienced the down-to-the-wire fight BYU puts teams through to take home the W, and now BYU has the motivation of a narrow rivalry loss going into its other rivalry. Luckily though, the Zags aren't coming in on the heals of a loss to BYU's other-other rival Saint Mary's (they won't meet until January 17).
In reality the game might end up being another coast-to-the-buzzer win like UCLA was. Nobody in their right mind would argue the team who almost beat Arizona (3) at the McKale Center, the team who is a convincing 2-1 against the PAC12, the team who is putting up top 10 assists/turnover/scoring and defensive figures would struggle against a hobbled, choking BYU team. But the highlight reels tell a different story, and the Zags will be on their toes for this one.
Armchair Considerations for the BYU game
Sabonis could get limited minutes because, while he has an absolutely beautiful post game*, footwork, and is very athletic, he's also shown he can let his aggressiveness manifest into fouls and turnovers. Combine this with a hostile BYU environment he's encountering for the first time, and the referees could be extra raw to his aggressiveness. Karnowski might get double-duty in the post on defense, and Wiltjer's shooting might be called on to help Karnowski stretch the floor on offense.
Byron Wesley might quietly explode again for 20+ points. Without BYU's major rim protectors like Austin (hamstring) and Eric Mika (mission), Isaac Neilson will have to fill in. Besides the occasional block, his defense is about as underwhelming as his bald spot. Wesley's quickness is a lane threat against any line-up. With BYU's interior defense diminished, Wesley only has the guard line to get through, and he knows how to do that consistently. He's proven to be a steady hand in hostile situations and he likes getting to the rim for easy lay-ups. Watch for a big game and a few and-ones for Wesley.
6'5" Byron Wesley beats 7'0" Thomas Welsh to the basket, in a game
where he softly highlighted the value of veteran finesse. He unassumingly
scored 20 points against two PAC12 opponents back-to-back.
41% of his shots have been at the rim this season, by far
the highest of Gonzaga's starting guards and Kyle Wiltjer.
Dressed to serve the BYU's diminished interior. Isaac Neilson
*Sabonis' post game is something rare. Few players can effectively execute back-to-the-basket play like him and he's mastered backing down his post defender dribbling off his right, then hooking the shot using his left. His IQ and positioning is something Dick Vitale called "special."
The conference schedule + Memphis
Be on the look-out for surges from the likes of Santa Clara and Saint Mary's taking aim at the boredom target on the Zags' backs as they tour through the WCC. Santa Clara has a commanding 9-point win over WSU and Saint Mary's battled for an overtime win at McDermottless-Creighton. Memphis is not the team it was last year. It's just not playing well, having played only one ranked team (Wichita State), offering a 5-4 record. Two of those losses were at Memphis.
The Zags (way too early to really know) only concern at this point is shaking off some rust entering the dance. It will enter the back-to-back elite play the tournament demands off mediocre conference play, with its last two games at the Kennel.