PROVO — BYU basketball hasn’t played a game since last year, so one might think that when the West Coast Conference opened play Thursday night, the Cougars would’ve been glued to their televisions.
And they were, to a point. But then another realization came out of the bye-week Cougars’ weeknight, which was best expressed by starting forward Yoeli Childs.
“It was annoying,” Childs said just moments after BYU wrapped up practice Friday afternoon in the Marriott Center. “We’re so hungry, man. We’re so hungry to go in.
“A lot of times when teams are on a five-game losing streak, they get hungry to go in. But we are so hungry. It’s 0-0 now, so let’s go. I wish we were playing today, and that’s how everyone on our team feels.”
Riding a five-game winning streak, and being one of only two teams in the league not playing Thursday night, the Cougars (11-4) will be the last team to open conference play upon tipping off Saturday against Loyola Marymount (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv). Though the Lions (7-8) don’t have the national rankings of Gonzaga or the big-time resume of Saint Mary’s, they do have something BYU has yet to achieve this decade: a win in WCC play.
They aren’t alone either, as BYU head coach Mark Pope skipped around from the Lions’ game against San Diego to watching Saint Mary’s classic on the Hilltop against San Francisco, to Gonzaga overturning a 7-point halftime deficit to beat Portland, to Pacific’s win over Pepperdine.
It was, to use Pope’s word, humbling for a team ranking in the top 40 in both the NCAA’s NET rankings and KenPom.
“This league is good,” he added. “We were watching LMU and San Diego, of course, and seeing just how deep LMU is. We actually added guys to our scout just off the game last night.”
That’s nothing new to seniors like Childs and TJ Haws, who have been through the gauntlet of league play enough to know that Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s aren’t the only challenges the Cougars will face along the way from a conference that ranks ninth in KenPom’s conference ratings, trailing only the Atlantic 10 amongst teams outside the traditional Power Six and American Athletic Conference.
“This conference is very talented, we have a lot of great teams, and every game is a battle,” said Haws, who averages 12.5 points and 4.9 assists per game. “But I believe that we’re right there at the top — and we can make a run in this league. It just takes coming in with the right mentality.”
Kolby Lee returned to full participation in practice this week, after playing sparingly in the Cougars’ win over Oral Roberts while recovering from a knee injury. The sophomore post played mostly with the second team in practice, but his availability no longer seems to be in question for his first-year head coach.
Good thing, too; it doesn’t get any easier down low for BYU, who will have to guard 6-foot-6 forward Eli Scott and his team-leading 16.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.
“He’s clearly the best passing big that we’ve seen, averaging 4-5 assists per game as a four or five,” Pope said. “He’s a real problem.”
The Lions are also paced by double-digit scorer Ivan Alipiev, a sophomore from Bulgaria who averages 11.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, and Parker Dortch, a junior college transfer who went off for 12 points and five rebounds in the team’s win over San Diego to start conference play at 1-0.
“We understand that we need to bring it every night,” Childs said. “But understand that every game is a battle; it doesn’t matter the rankings. It’s a battle in conference, and we know that.”
How to watch, stream and listen
BYU (11-4, 0-0 WCC) vs. Loyola Marymount (7-8, 1-0 WCC)
TV: BYUtv (Dave McCann, Blaine Fowler, Spencer Linton)
Radio: BYU Radio, KSL Newsradio (Greg Wrubell, Terry Nashif)
Series record: BYU leads 16-5