BYU head coach Jeff Judkins goes way back with Arizona basketball. As a player at Utah, he faced the Fred Snowden teams in the old WAC. As an assistant coach at Utah, he helped oust defending national champion Arizona from the 1998 men’s tournament. Now, he leads his team of Cougars into battle against an Arizona women’s team that has many of the same attributes as those men’s teams of old. Talent being chief among them.
And it starts with Aari McDonald.
“The only person we’ve come close to guarding with her speed is our walk-on boy player that’s a practice player,” Judkins said. “I mean, that girl is unbelievable. I saw her play. She was a freshman when she played at Washington. They came and played us. And, of course, she didn’t get a lot of shots. (Kelsey) Plum got a lot of those shots. But she was really good then. She has matured into a really, really good player. There’s nobody who pushes the ball up the court faster than her. And what do you do? You can’t go get somebody to do it. You have to just play against that. And just watching the film, she does it against I think some of the best athletes in the country. So we’re gonna have our hands full.”
He knows it doesn’t end there, though.
“I think (Cate) Reese does not get enough credit for what she does,” Judkins said. “She’s a very, very good player. She can shoot it, she can drive and she can post. She’s a great rebounder.”
The Cougars have proven that they can overcome the odds, though. They used 28 points from Paisley Harding in the opening round to knock off the favored Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Another 17 came from Gilbert, Ariz. product Shaylee Gonzales. Lauren Gustin, who spent a year playing beside Gonzales in Arizona, had a double-double.
“Paisley’s always been that kind of a player that she can come in and aggressively score for you,” Judkins said. “And I thought yesterday was one of her best games she’s played probably at BYU. She’s really a good defender. Didn’t look like it yesterday with the girl scoring 30 points on her, but she really is a good defender. She does get to the basket as good as anybody. I think she surprised Rutgers with her quickness. She’s a lot quicker than she looks on tape.”
All three of the BYU stars averaged double-digit scoring this year. Gustin also averaged double digits in rebounding with 12.7 RPG, leading the West Coast Conference this season.
All of that was not good enough for some. When the brackets were revealed, questions about BYU’s inclusion as an at-large selection arose after they were edged out by Gonzaga in the WCC title game. That’s not the worst thing in the world, according to Judkins.
“I think if you’re told, ‘hey, you’re slow,’ you’re gonna think you’re fast. And if you say, ‘hey, you shouldn’t be there,’ you’re gonna want to be there,” Judkins said. “I mean, don’t kid yourself, we use that as motivation with this team. It also says pressure because no one thought you should be here except for the committee.”
Judkins knows it will be hard to rise up and beat two highly-ranked teams in a row, but there have been a lot of surprises this season.
“This tournament has proven that both in the men's and the women’s side anything can happen,” Judkins said. “Whatever team’s playing the best that day is what’s going to happen. But Arizona is a very, very good defensive team and as you probably have heard from many, many coaches defense wins championships. They’ll come out and they’ll play really good defense and we have to be able to handle it not get rushed up. But we’ve played pretty good defense ourselves.”
Arizona head coach Adia Barnes agreed with that assessment.
“BYU is a very experienced team and they’ve been to the tournament plenty of times over the years,” she said. “Really good guard play. They move the ball well, they spread the floor well, they shoot the three well. And, also, not only their offense is potent, but their defense is one of the best in the country, their opponent field-goal percentage. They’re coached really well.”
Overall, Her Hoop Stats rates the BYU offense at No. 64 and the defense at No. 33. In comparison, Arizona is ranked No. 58 on the offensive end of the floor and No. 9 on defense.
The Cougars score more points per 100 possessions, but the Wildcats hold their opponents to fewer points per 100 possessions. And, as Judkins suggested, Arizona has done it against some of the best athletes in the country.
The Cougars will fall back on their identity, just as Arizona will. Barnes called BYU’s style “blue collar” and “relentless.” Their players use similar words.
“Toughness,” Gustin said about the Cougars’ identity. “I think we really play well together, and we kind of rely on each other. So just unity, for sure.”
Barnes is ready for BYU to mostly play small except for Sara Hamson, the 6-foot-7 center. But Barnes believes Pac-12 play gave the Wildcats plenty of reps against similar lineups.
“They usually have four guard-like players,” she said. “So when you play a lot of schools like Gonzaga, BYU, and just really good schools like that, their fours aren’t going to be 6-3. They’re going to be six-foot versatile rebounders, pick-and-pop, drive it, more guard-like.”
According to Her Hoop Stats, the Wildcats have a 66 percent chance of winning, but it should be a close one. The stats service predicts the winning margin to be less than five points in a neutral setting.
Judkins knows that his team has not faced a club like Arizona this season, not even Rutgers. There’s nothing for the Cougars to do but to go out and see what they can do, just as they did in the first round.
“Rutgers is probably longer and more athletic than Arizona, but Arizona is ... quicker,” he said. “And they play their spots as good as anybody I’ve seen. And what I mean by that there might be a lot of the Chicago Bulls when they were really good defensively when they had Michael Jordan and those guys. They just helped each other, and they can put a lot of pressure on people. Or they can back off and say ‘hey, we’re gonna play position.’ They’re the best defensive team that I’ve seen this year that I’ve scouted, and you can just tell why they’re holding people in the 40s and 50s. And the way they push the ball offensively. They have a lot of weapons, how they defend. And every coach that I’ve talked to who has played them has told me the same thing. Their defense is unbelievable. So you just have to be ready for it.”