As the BYU Cougars prepare to begin their Mountain West Conference Tournament journey, they do so buoyed by the send-off they received last Saturday. The 102-78 home win over Wyoming did more than secure the team's fourth conference crown in the last five seasons; it restored the vigor of a BYU basketball program that had suffered a serious mid-week hit.
The suspension of sophomore center Brandon Davies proved to be more than BYU could handle last Wednesday, when New Mexico's early big lead compounded the challenge facing the Cougars only a day after losing their man in the middle. It turned out to be too much to ask, too soon. Head coach Dave Rose spoke of needing time the team simply didn't have. The Cougars did require time — time to plan, time to adjust, perhaps even time to mourn.
Saturday, with a few more days to recover and rally, the Cougars took the floor at a sold-out Marriott Center, and turned a regular season-ending win into a celebration resonating with emotions that transcended typical Senior Day and championship festivities. It was as if the entire crowd had assembled to recognize not only the team's accomplishments, but what BYU represents.
From the day news of the Davies decision broke, BYU was again identified as a school that does things differently, much differently than almost every other institution in the country. Local and national observers vacillated between respect for and criticism of BYU's standards, while school officials and Rose did not waver. "It's not about right or wrong," said Rose. "It's about commitment."
I sensed commitment of a different kind as I entered the Marriott Center for both of last week's games. More students were now lined up even earlier, and the lines were longer than I had ever seen. Last Wednesday, the fans were loud and supportive, but the Cougars were fighting a losing battle on the floor. Returning to the arena on Saturday, players, coaches and fans had seemingly agreed to an unspoken pact.
From the start to the finish of the win over Wyoming, the arena atmosphere was electric, joyous and collaborative. Even the choreographed student section "flash mob" seemed to symbolize the day; people uniting to pull off something sort of inspiring. The exercise itself was at the same time simple and complex, with the students appearing to send an underlying message: We've committed to live the same standards the players have, we know the challenges they face in today's world, and we're all in this together.
Saturday's cheers for seniors Jimmer Fredette, Jackson Emery and Logan Magnusson were overwhelmingly sincere, and the excitement of winning another league title was certainly heartfelt. But there was something different about the postgame celebration, both in its duration, and in the perception of its importance. I've been at the Marriott Center for many Senior Days and trophy presentations, and I had never felt anything like it. The phrase, "You just had to be there" was created for days likes last Saturday.
Davies' departure had likely damaged the short-term confidence of players and fans alike, and last Wednesday's loss had done little to allay any concerns. Saturday's runaway victory had shown that it was still possible to find a different way to win. Davies' presence on the bench, in the huddle and in cutting down the nets had shown that it was still possible he would play again for BYU. The powerful way the team rebounded from turmoil had shown that it was still possible to make a sustained postseason run.
MWC TOURNEY BY THE NUMBERS
BYU is making its fourth appearance as the No. 1 seed in the MWC Tournament; the most top seed appearances of any MWC school.
The No. 1 seed has a 9-1 record in the tournament quarterfinals, a 5-5 record in the semifinals and a 2-3 record in the tourney title game.
BYU's MWC Tournament record as a No. 1 seed is 5-3, last appearing as the top seed in 2009, when it lost in the semifinals to No. 4 seed San Diego State.
BYU has played in 23 MWC Tournament games, going 13-10. Only UNLV has played in more MWC Tournament games, going 19-7 in 26 contests.
BYU has the league's best average seed number through 12 MWC Tournament brackets, at 2.7.
Greg Wrubell is the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Cougars," and hosts BYU Football and Basketball Coaches' Shows on KSL Newsradio and KSL 5 Television. Wrubell's blog "Cougar Tracks" can be found at byu.ksl.com. "Behind the Mic" is published every Tuesday during the BYU football and basketball seasons. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org