LAS VEGAS — BYU has relied heavily this season on five freshmen, and now that the regular season is over, the next phase of their development — the postseason — has arrived.
How well the freshmen play from here will play a big factor in how far the Cougars go this postseason.
It all begins Friday night (9 p.m. MST, ESPNU), when No. 3 seeded BYU takes the court at the Orleans Arena in the West Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
"I'm really excited," said freshman guard Matt Carlino. "I'm ecstatic."
Carlino, a UCLA transfer, sat on the bench last season during the Cougars' memorable run to the Sweet 16.
"That was awesome," he recalled. "It was fun to watch. I've been watching March Madness my whole life. So now it's coming down to crunch time on our season, this is the most exciting time in all of basketball. I'm excited to be a part of it now. It's going to be an amazing experience."
Of the 12 players on BYU's roster, only three — Noah Hartsock, Charles Abouo and Stephen Rogers — played significant minutes last year in the postseason. Right now, both Hartsock and Rogers are dealing with knee injuries, and it's uncertain how much they will be able to play this weekend.
BYU's five freshmen have been counted on more and more as the season has progressed. With Hartsock sidelined in the regular-season finale last Saturday against Portland, coach Dave Rose started three freshmen — Carlino, guard Anson Winder and forward Nate Austin. It marked Austin's first career start.
Freshmen Josh Sharp and Damarcus Harrison have also made an impact this season.
"It's a good thing they've made a positive impact," Rose said of the freshmen class, "because they've played a lot."
This is a diverse group of freshmen, Rose noted.
"It's interesting to me because I go through that group of guys and they're freshmen from all different places," he said.
The coach explained that there's a freshman right out of high school (Harrison); two freshmen that sat out last season while they practiced with the team (Carlino and Winder); a freshman that redshirted elsewhere, at Utah, before serving a mission and transferring to BYU (Sharp); and a freshman that served a mission before joining the program (Austin).
Although guard Craig Cusick is a junior, this is his first season playing college basketball.
"So they're all first-year guys, but they've all really helped us at one time or another," Rose said. "Hopefully, they'll continue to play well. You look at the 10 players that have played the most minutes the last six weeks, and six of them are first-year guys. For us to be good, we need those first-year guys to come through for us."
Carlino has started 20 games since becoming eligible in mid-December, and he's averaging 13 points, 4.7 assists, and 1.5 steals per game. He scored a career-high 30 points and had four steals at San Francisco two weeks ago.
"Matt continues to get better. He has great talent and a great future," Rose said. "Young players, their challenge is to be consistent night-in and night-out. I think Matt has really gained the respect of his teammates as far as his ability to lead this team. The key for him is to be consistent every night. He puts so much pressure on himself to score. This team doesn't necessarily need him to score every night. There are nights when we really need him to score. But we need him to run our team. I think that's what he's really gotten better at."
Winder, who has started the last seven games, has hit crucial shots and made big defensive plays for the Cougars. Harrison has had an up-and-down freshman campaign, but has shown flashes of his potential. Austin and Sharp provide depth in the post. The 6-foot-10, 215-pound Austin has been a key contributor as a rebounder, defender and a scorer.
While this is his first foray into the postseason, Austin said his mindset is the same as it was at the start of the year.
"I'll try to go in and make positive plays for my team and hopefully get a win," he said. "We've got to get some wins to get into the NCAA Tournament probably. For me, that's all that matters, to help the team to win."
The Cougars, Austin added, have been playing with a sense of urgency for the past month.
"I think it's been that way since we lost to Saint Mary's the second time," he said. "Either we need to turn it around or we won't reach our goals. Since that game, our team has stepped up in practice and in games. This is it. We can't afford to lose."
For BYU to survive and advance in a tournament setting, the freshmen will need to continue making a positive impact.
"It's a great group — a lot of contributors as freshmen," Carlino said. "I think the whole country has moved in that direction. A lot of freshmen contribute early now. You look at our whole conference, and it's mainly all freshmen and sophomores. We're excited for this all being our first postseason playing together. We're looking forward to maturing as a group."
San Diego advances to play BYU
LAS VEGAS No. 6 San Diego throttled No. 7 Pepperdine, 76-54, at the Orleans Arena in the second round of the West Coast Conference Tournament Thursday night.
With the victory, the Toreros advance to the quarterfinals, where they will face No. 3 BYU Friday night (9 p.m. MST, ESPNU).
Freshman guard Johnny Dee scored a career-high 30 points, including six 3-pointers, to lead San Diego, which improved to 13-17 on the season.
The Cougars swept San Diego in the regular season. They defeated the Toreros in Provo, 88-52, on Dec. 31, and downed them in San Diego, 82-63, on Jan. 16.
Dee scored a total of 14 points against BYU in the two previous meetings.
Pepperdine finished its season with a 10-19 record.
San Diego (13-17, 7-9) vs. BYU (24-7, 12-4)
Friday, 9 p.m. MT
Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
Radio: 102.7 FM, 1160 AM