College athletics is at its peak when two rival teams go head-to-head, playing for the ultimate prize of a league title. From the classic Michigan vs. Michigan State matchup to Duke vs. North Carolina, these rivalries are what get people out of their seats, excited to watch college basketball.
The top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs (18-1 overall, 4-0 West Coast Conference) will face the BYU Cougars (13-5, 2-1) Saturday night in The Kennel.
Each team will look to continue its traditional success in league play, as the Zags and Cougars aim to grab hold of a conference crown.
Even though the Zags are undefeated in WCC action, the team's performances in the first two conference games are not to the level the Zags wish to reach.
To kick off their opening week of conference play, the Bulldogs won 85-72 against University of Portland in Portland on Jan. 2 and 75-70 over Pepperdine University in Spokane on Jan. 4. Both games saw the Zags seesawing for control.
Senior forward Killian Tillie blocked a potential game-tying 3-pointer from Pepperdine's Colbey Ross, allowing the Zags to secure the win at the free-throw line.
With that in mind, free throws will be a huge key for the Zags to get a win against a WCC rival.
The Bulldogs are shooting 65.6% from the free-throw line, with junior forward Corey Kispert leading the way at 76%, followed by Tillie at 72.9% and redshirt senior Admon Gilder Jr. at 68.8%.
Success at the free-throw line will make everything else easier.
If GU gets to the line and sinks the majority of its free throws, that will force the Cougars to play more conservatively on defense, allowing for the floor to spread out and give 3-point shooters like Kispert, Gilder and Tillie opportunities to convert from downtown.
Kispert (42.2%), Tillie (37.3%) and Gilder (37%) are all shooting at least 37% beyond the arc.
Enjoying a solid season to this point, BYU is seeking to beat the Zags for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
However, the Cougars will likely not have their best player at their disposal, as senior Yoeli Childs — averaging 20.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game — recently suffered a finger injury. BYU head coach Mark Pope told BYUtv on Tuesday that the injury will keep Childs out for the next seven to 10 days, which overlaps with Saturday's game against GU.
If Childs cannot play, look for senior guards TJ Haws and Jake Toolson to try and replace Childs' offensive production.
This matchup should be a high scoring game — the Cougars are shooting 48.8% from the field, while the Bulldogs are shooting 50.2%.
Defense will be important for the Bulldogs, as they rank outside the top 30 in KenPom's defensive efficiency for the first time since 2011-12.
In the teams' most recent matchup last February, the Zags rolled past BYU 102-68 on Senior Night, with Rui Hachimura pouring in 23 points, followed by Josh Perkins’ 21.
The Cougars’ biggest victory this season came in a buzzer-beater against University of Houston, where Haws hit a 3-pointer to seal the upset.
For the Zags, it is important to win the rebounding battle against a potentially depleted Cougar frontcourt and minimize turnovers against their scrappy guards.
Freshmen forwards Anton Watson and Drew Timme will need to be big contributors, while the guard play of Gilder, redshirt senior Ryan Woolridge and redshirt sophomore Joel Ayayi will be crucial as well.
The guards' ability to win their individual matchups on both ends of the court against BYU's playmakers likely will put the Zags in a better position to assert themselves.
Historically, The Kennel is alive with student spirit for BYU games and Saturday projects to be the same, as GU diehards look to power the Bulldogs to victory.
From freshman — who are experiencing this rivalry for the first time — to seniors, who watched BYU spoil a perfect season three years ago, McCarthey Athletic Center fans will be rowdy and ready to see their team compete, especially after spending a night out in the cold.
As this is one of the biggest home games of the year, GU students will be excited and eager to welcome back their Zags with a rivalry matchup in The Kennel.
Vinny Saglimbeni is a sports editor.