Coach of lone school to topple Gonzaga has high praise for the ‘Zags

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Gonzaga enters Saturday’s men’s basketball semifinal with one loss on the season, by far the fewest in Division I. And according to the coach responsible for the Bulldogs’ lone blemish, the West Coast Conference champs have more than enough talent to add two more wins — and the program’s first national championship — to their tally over the next several days.

On Feb. 25, Dave Rose’s BYU Cougars traveled to Spokane for both teams’ regular-season finale. Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the country at the time, entered the contest 29-0, but left the McCarthey Athletic Center 29-1 thanks in part to 29 Eric Mika points in a 79-71 BYU win.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Like the teams’ first meeting, an 85-75 Gonzaga victory on Feb. 2, the Bulldogs started hot in the rematch and took an 18-2 lead just over five minutes in. But BYU gradually rallied and held the Zags to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half — after allowing them to shoot 59.3 percent in the first — in a game Rose feels was set up for his team to win.

“I think the timing of the next game had a lot to do with the result,” Rose told FOX Sports by phone Thursday from Phoenix, where he’s attending the NABC convention ahead of the Final Four. “It was just perfect timing. They’d just sealed the WCC championship that Thursday night in San Diego, and we were in Portland and had won that game, so they were traveling back to a home game, which is one of the toughest things to do, logistics-wise.

“They also had lots of things they were trying to do,” Rose continued. “It’s really hard to have an undefeated season. It’s really hard to have an undefeated season at home and not lose a home game every year. So we had the same kind of mindset: Let’s just see if we can put a little pressure on them and then see what happens.”

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

That’s not to suggest BYU’s win was a fluke, but Rose said it’s obvious that most Gonzaga opponents go into games knowing they’ll have to fight above their weight class.

“Gonzaga has been good all six years we’ve been in this league — like, really good, nationally good — so they’re used to that feeling of confidence,” Rose said. “But this year’s team is so much deeper. I think their initial five are similar to the five they’ve been playing the last few years, but they’ve got five guys behind them that are every bit as good. They might have the two best teams in the league: their first team, and their second team. It’s unbelievable how deep they are.”

That being said, Rose still thinks the priority for any opponent facing Gonzaga has to be limiting the Bulldogs’ two top scorers.

“You can still get beat even if you do contain these, but the two most important things are, one, to get the ball out of Nigel’s hands,” Rose said of junior guard and Washington transfer Nigel Williams-Goss. “Because he’s going to push it as far as he possibly can, as deep as he can, and then either pass it or shoot it. The first game, we let him get way too deep and he ended up with 33 points.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

“The second thing is you can’t let Karnowski catch the ball in the key,” Rose continued of Gonzaga’s 7-foot-1 senior center Przemek Karnowski. “If he can catch it outside the key, or you can stretch him a little bit, that’s (OK), but if he catches it within five or six feet of the basket, you don’t have a chance. He’s too big and he’s too skilled and they’ll score.”

In Williams-Goss and Karnowski, Rose says Gonzaga has a one-two punch to rival any team in the country — to say nothing of senior guard Jordan Mathews and junior forward Johnathan Williams, standout transfers from Cal and Mizzou, respectively — but still, Rose notes, the Bulldogs seem to be overlooked when it comes to the national discussion.

“There’s no question that people don’t think they’re as good as they really are,” Rose said. “Everybody is just waiting for them to lose when there’s other teams that are out there, and all they think they’re going to do is move on, move on, move on. This Gonzaga team is for real.”

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

That was something Rose experienced during his playing days as a co-captain during the Phi Slama Jama era at the University of Houston.

“I played on the 1983 team that won 26 straight games, was ranked No. 1 in the country for 13 or 14 weeks, and then we lost the championship game,” Rose, a Houston native, said of his senior season, which saw the Cougars go 31-3. “And that was our calling card. We had depth, 10 or 11 guys who helped us through that whole season. And that’s how they’ve done what they’ve done.

UH’s 1982-83 team: Front row, from left, Reid Gettys, Eric Dickens, Alvin Franklin, David Rose, Derek Giles and Renaldo Thomas. Back row, Benny Anders, Gary Orsak, Larry Micheaux, Dan Bunce, Akeem Olajuwon, David Bunce, Clyde Drexler and Michael Young. (University of Houston)

“When we did it at Houston, people didn’t think we were very good, either,” added Rose, BYU’s coach since 2005. “We were (in the) Southwest Conference, out of the main group, and I think (Gonzaga) is also way better than the majority of people think they are.”

Rose’s championship hopes as a player ended when when North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles famously turned a Dereck Whittenburg airball into a buzzer-beating dunk as time expired on the national title game, and his current Cougars team finished 22-12, bowing out in the first round of the NIT.

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Fortunately, BYU did so with a banner win look back on, and while Rose wouldn’t go so far as to pick Gonzaga to win it all, he clearly likes its chances.

“I know Frank (Martin) really well, and I know his team,” Rose said of the South Carolina, whom Gonzaga faces in Saturday’s semifinal, with the winner meeting Oregon or North Carolina. “They will be a real challenge, just like West Virginia was (in the Sweet 16). But I believe that the confidence that they have, and their chemistry, and their depth gives them a real chance to win this thing.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.