DAYTON, Ohio — There was a time, as recently as two years ago, when BYU couldn't advance past the NCAA Tournament's opening round.
Before finally earning a double-overtime first-round victory over Florida in 2010, the Cougars hadn't won a tournament game in 17 years.
But as No. 14 seed BYU meets No. 14 Iona Tuesday night (7 p.m. MT, TruTV) in the NCAA Tournament First Four at University of Dayton Arena, it is coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, with victories over Wofford and Gonzaga a year ago.
The Cougars have proven they can win in this tournament. And history has taught them to expect a fierce battle with Iona.
"What I've seen is, especially in the opening-round games, they go down to the wire," said senior Noah Hartsock. "And you just kind of make the right plays. That's what I think we need to do. It's going to be two teams vying for another day to play. And I've been telling these guys, we've got to play hard for 40 minutes, especially the last two minutes. We've got to play really hard all the way, because that's what these type of games are. Hardly are there any blowouts or anything. It's one of those games that goes back and forth the whole time."
The winner of tonight's showdown faces No. 3 seed Marquette in Louisville Thursday in the West Region's second round.
Of course, BYU's situation this year is much different from a year ago, when it was a No. 3 seed and everybody in the country was talking about charismatic, high-scoring guard Jimmer Fredette.
By comparison, the Cougars are flying under the radar this time.
"It's a big difference," Hartsock said. "I remember last year having that No. 3 seed — a lot of expectations not only to win the first game, but advance deep into the tournament. It's a neat feeling, because it's the First Four, and it's still exciting, I'll say that, just being part of the tournament once more, and being part of this program that's been to it quite a bit. It's a lot of fun, and we're excited for another tournament, another chance at a tournament title."
Coach Dave Rose is hoping the veterans, like Hartsock, will help navigate the team through rough spots.
"The guys who can feel the most comfortable out there in this environment the quickest I think are the ones most successful," he said. "Usually you can rely on experienced players, players who have been through this environment to maybe feel a little more comfortable. But that's kind of what you hope happens. Once the ball's tipped, it comes down to execution and effort, and hopefully that your team can start to play the way you've played all year long in this environment as soon as possible."
This marks Iona's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. Officially, the Gaels are 0-7 all-time in the tournament, though they did win a game in 1980, but were forced to vacate that win later due to NCAA violations.
Some pundits around the country have publicly doubted the validity of Iona's inclusion in this year's tournament, which simply provides the Gaels with extra motivation.
"We just want to prove everybody that chose us right in the (NCAA selection) committee, and we want to show everybody that we can play and that we can compete with the best," said Iona point guard Scott Machado.
The Gaels (25-7) are the nation's highest scoring team, averaging 83.3 points per game.
"It's going to be kind of that game, just up and down," Hartsock said. "We're going to push the ball like we've always been doing. And every time we get a chance to get down in transition, we're going to try to take advantage of that. Obviously, we've got to stop them. They scored nearly half their points in transition. And we've just got to try to jam them, slow them down, and try to limit those opportunities they might have."
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