PHILADELPHIA — In three short days of scouting, scheming and practicing, the BYU Cougars feel they're ready to reverse the fortunes they've experienced in their past six trips to the NCAA Tournament.
This morning, at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, the Cougars have a first-round rematch with Texas A&M — the team that eliminated BYU in the first round last March.
"One of the things that has eluded us has been an NCAA Tournament win, advancing in the tournament," said Lee Cummard, BYU's lone senior in the starting five. "If we can do that, it will be a huge positive for this program moving forward."
The Cougars have won three straight regular-season Mountain West Conference titles, but haven't won an NCAA Tournament game since beating SMU in the first round in 1993. This is their third-straight trip to the Big Dance as a No. 8 seed.
"I think that it's apparent that in all those games we could play a little bit better, and we had possessions during the game that we left empty that we could do a better job of," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "You know, hopefully this group in this game will be able to put 40 minutes together where we make all those plays. ... I do know for some of the returning players there's a real will to win and they want to win this game."
The Aggies, even though they got the best of BYU in last March's 67-62 win, are expecting a more determined and sharper Cougar squad this time around.
"They got some new players obviously playing, and so do we," Aggies coach Mark Turgeon said. "They're a heck of a team. It was a great game last year, back and forth. I think 10 or 11 lead changes. We were lucky enough to win by five. So it should be another great game this year ... we really played well to beat BYU last year."
No one expects a start like the one BYU had the last time the two teams met. The Cougars, by missing their first nine shots, fell behind 11-0.
"I don't expect that we'll play a perfect game. I don't think we need to play a perfect game. But we do need to play at a really high efficient rate," Rose said.
However, getting off to a fast start is not something the Cougars have done lately. In fact, they're on a six-game stretch of slow starts, but hope to reverse that trend today.
"If we do that, get in the flow of the game, just compete from the start, we'll be a little bit better off than last year," Cummard said.
Holding down the Aggies' Josh Carter, who hit 10-of-16 shots last year in scoring a game-high 26 points, is another focus for BYU. Also, keeping the Aggies off the offensive boards is center stage.
"If you look at the games that we've struggled with in the year, especially in the second half, we've had issues rebounding the basketball. So that's got to be a main priority with our team," Rose said.
BYU got a taste of Texas A&M's physical play last season, and the Cougars don't expect that to change even though the Aggies lost a couple of key post players.
"It's not like they're a bunch of 6-6 guys now," Cougar Jonathan Tavernari said. "They still got height and some strength. They're hard to push around, so still big."
The Aggies' game plan is simple — recognize that Cummard, Tavernari and Jimmer Fredette are going to make tough and guarded shots, but just don't let them have easy shots.
"To me it's all about transition defense and finding shooters in transition," Turgeon said. "If you can slow that down a little bit, you have a chance. If you don't do that, you have no chance against them."
The opposite side to that is BYU's offensive plan — to control the pace, but not get sped up and make sure to make the extra pass to turn a good shot into a better shot.
"I think that that's probably one of the most important things we can do, is just maybe be a little bit more patient in our shot selection," Rose said.
Should BYU get past the Aggies today, they'll face the winner of the No. 1 Connecticut vs. Chattanooga game in a second-round matchup on Saturday.
Cougars on the air
BYU (25-7) vs. Texas A&M (23-9)
Today, 10:30 a.m.
Wachovia Center, Philadelphia
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM