“Somebody told us our chances of winning the tournament was 4 percent,” said senior forward Brock Zylstra. “That motivates us to get going. Nobody thinks we have a chance to win it.”
So, what you have is a Cougar team with 21 wins and little chance of playing in the NCAA tournament unless it wins all its games in Las Vegas this weekend. Players say this puts an edge on the Vegas trip, something they have to take with them.
The ol' backs-to-the-wall mentality. Us against the world. Nobody believes but us. We’ve got to make it happen. That sort of stuff.
And that’s good. These Cougars will need every part of that mentality. If they get past their first tournament game Friday (vs. San Diego or Pepperdine), they’ll likely face Saint Mary’s and then No. 1-ranked Gonzaga. Those two teams accounted for four of BYU’s 10 losses — both broom-sweeping sweeps. Thus, 4 percent.
The Cougars aren’t used to being in this position.
For his entire career Zylstra has played on BYU teams that were already NCAA tournament-bound this time of year. They may not have known the seed or the regional, but they came to Vegas with the idea they would get in the Big Dance.
Not so this week.
It’s get lucky or starve.
“It is what it is. We understand we need to win in order to get in,” said the senior.
“I have never had this feeling.”
He’s sensed he, his teammates and coaches have had a feeling of urgency for the past two weeks. The Cougars have played better basketball, been tougher and played with a greater purpose, even in losses to Saint Mary’s on the road and Gonzaga in Provo.
“There needs to be a difference and there will be a difference,” said Zylstra. “It started with the Saint Mary’s game and that is what it needs to be, to have an edge, when nobody expects us to win.”
An important factor is how much more physical the Cougars are playing in February. Back in early January, they were getting pushed around by opponents. A little undersized and lacking depth up front, Rose has made a concerted effort to have his team play with more muscle. Hence, the interjection of football defensive end Bronson Kaufusi in the lineup.
Kaufusi has made a difference, said Zylstra. His presence has been felt on the court by foes and BYU teammates alike. “You can see it in their faces,” said Zylstra of opponents, who have gone up against Kaufusi, tried to push him to gain position, met him on a set pick, or been fouled by him when they enter the key.
A national TV audience saw this against Gonzaga when 7-foot Kelly Olynyk made a move toward Kaufusi and ended up landing on his butt. The play resulted in a flagrant foul against Kaufusi, but it made a point.
While Zylstra doesn’t condone dirty play, he wants hard play. He didn’t have an issue with Kaufusi getting physical but has suggested he doesn’t cower over opponents when they’ve found themselves on the floor after colliding with him.
“I say don’t make a face or yell at them after. You can foul if it's a clean foul and make sure they don’t make a bucket but stay away after that. He does have an impact on us. People know and have felt. He is not a dirty player and doesn’t try to be one, but he’s 274 pounds and it’s not as easy to control your body.”
Physical play. Yes. This is a BYU team that can’t win without it. But it has to be controlled and executed as part of the mentality and approach.
Kaufusi has it, but nobody’s hiding behind his Nike uniform.
“Most people thought they could out-tough us. It’s not where we want to be, but it's getting close,” said Zylstra. “It’s something we need to do, be tougher, take care of our ball. Also, our team is coming together. We are sharing the ball and are more happy in each other’s successes, which was not the case earlier this season.”
It’ll be a challenge to accumulate the rest of the 96 percent.
Does this Cougar team have it in them?
They believe so.
We shall see.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.