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With 3-straight top-40 teams, BYU begins critical week of season vs. Saint Mary's

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, left, greets Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett before an NCAA college basketball game in Moraga, Calif., Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, left, greets Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett before an NCAA college basketball game in Moraga, Calif., Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021. (Jose Carlos Fajardo, Bay Area News Group via AP)

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

PROVO — Now that the warmup has been passed, the real test is on the horizon.

We're not just talking about BYU basketball's pivotal home clash Saturday with Saint Mary's (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2), though any meeting with coach Randy Bennett's Gaels would be considered big.

But the Cougars (13-3, 1-0 WCC) face an equally big challenge — or perhaps even moreso, given the state of the current college basketball season — over the next 10 days.

Mark Pope's crew can't look too far down the road, instead focusing on each game, one at a time. But we can, and we're going to say it straight: BYU basketball's next week may be the toughest three-game stretch since the Cougars joined the West Coast Conference a decade ago.

And it all starts Saturday against the Gaels, who ranked 40th in the NCAA's NET ratings with the 89th adjusted offense and 12th-ranked adjusted defense per KenPom. BYU holds a 17-16 edge in the overall series thanks to a 12-5 on-court advantage at home, a mark that includes three consecutive home wins and six of the last eight in Provo.

Saint Mary's (12-3, 0-0 WCC) hasn't played a game since Dec. 28, but put together a nonconference schedule that included wins over Notre Dame, Oregon and Utah State en route to becoming one of the top defensive teams in the country by most metrics.

"They've been flirting with being a top-10 defensive team in the country," Pope said of the Gaels, who rank 11th nationally in scoring defense at 58.1 points per game. "They're so physical, and they are really, really long. They're super disciplined. The game doesn't ever break open with Saint Mary's, because there is never a push of pace of the game."

But never before since the Cougars joined the conference in 2011 have three games in succession meant as much to a program's season as the ones on the current docket.

After Saint Mary's, BYU faces a short turnaround to Thursday for a road tilt against No. 4 Gonzaga, KenPom's second-best team nationally and No. 4 in the NET.

Then comes the newcomers, fresh off a 79-74 loss to Loyola Chicago in a hastily scheduled game at Salt Lake Community College: San Francisco. The Dons (13-2) are ranked 36th in KenPom, 32nd in the most recent NET, and receiving a handful of votes in the AP Top 25.

It's the deepest the WCC has been in the modern era, and the first time since BYU joined the league that the conference has had four teams in the top-40 nationally.

Life comes at you fast, and for BYU, the basis of the season may come down to the next 10 days. The Cougars' nonconference results — a 12-3 finish that included wins over six NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago — have given them a good shot at an at-large berth this March.

But what they do with that bid is more debatable, especially with season-ending injuries to the Cougars' senior posts Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward. Perhaps a preview of a March contest will come Saturday, and a possible lookahead into BYU's ability to not just make the Big Dance but earn a win — something the Cougars haven't done since 2011.

"It's a physical battle for the entire 40 minutes. We've got to be prepared for that," said BYU guard Alex Barcello, who became the 52nd player to score 1,000 points for the Cougars in Thursday night's 73-51 win over Pacific. "We know it's going to be 40 minutes of just back-and-forth battling and physicality."

At No. 40 in the NET, Saint Mary's at home is flirting with Quad 1 status for the Cougars, who are 0-1 in such opportunities this year. That's the type of game BYU frequently only finds outside of league play or with top-tier Gonzaga.

This year, they may have up to six of them in the back half of the season.

"We could actually play a home game not against the Zags that could end up as a Quad 1 game," Pope said. "That is just awesome, and it speaks very highly of the league right now."

How to watch, stream and listen

BYU (13-3, 1-0 WCC) vs. Saint Mary's (12-3, 0-0 WCC)

Marriott Center, Provo

Tipoff: 8 p.m. MST

TV: ESPN2 (Eric Rothman, Sean Farnham)

Streaming: WatchESPN

Radio: BYU 89.1 FM/Sirius XM 143; KSL 1160 AM/102.7 FM (Greg Wrubell, Mark Durrant)

Series: BYU leads, 17-16

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