We've been to six straight NCAA tournaments before this year, and I don't remember being any more excited than we are right now. This is really good for our team and our program. —Dave Rose, BYU basketball coach
He and his Cougars arrived in the Big Apple Sunday for a National Invitation Tournament semifinal clash with Baylor on Tuesday (5 p.m., MDT, ESPN2) at legendary Madison Square Garden.
And they couldn't be more thrilled.
"This is really exciting," Rose said. "We've been to six straight NCAA tournaments before this year, and I don't remember being any more excited than we are right now. This is really good for our team and our program."
Rose admits that there was a time, not too long ago, when a bid to the NIT would have been viewed as a letdown.
But not now.
"I think that everyone wants to say, 'Well, it's not the NCAA tournament.' And that's the truth. Our goal is to get to the NCAA tournament every year," Rose said. "But there's also a big part of, in our program, how are you going to deal with disappointment? And how do you respond to that? That's probably what excites me the most. From where we were six months ago, maybe you're not that excited. From where we were two weeks ago, hey, we're in great shape."
In early March, BYU was unceremoniously bounced from the West Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals by San Diego. That loss essentially ended any hopes of a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament berth.
Instead of hanging their heads, though, the Cougars went back to work. As the calendar turns to April, BYU is still playing.
"I'm glad that we got the chance to play in the NIT," said forward Nate Austin. "If our season had ended (after the WCC tournament), most people would say it's a disappointment almost. But our team came together. We stayed tight-knit, playing for each other. The season's kind of turned around a little bit."
Turned around, indeed. The Cougars have reeled off three consecutive wins in the NIT against Washington, Mercer and Southern Miss.
Suddenly, BYU finds itself competing on a big stage at Madison Square Garden.
"We know this is a great opportunity," said guard Tyler Haws. "We're looking to seize that opportunity and win as many games as we can."
"It's unbelievable," said guard Matt Carlino. "It's going to be really fun and we're all excited."
In their three NIT victories, the Cougars have scored 90, 90 and 79 points, respectively. BYU has shot 28-for-73 — 38 percent from 3-point territory (compared to 33.5 percent during the regular season) and is outrebounding its opponents, 129-98.
The stinging loss to San Diego in Las Vegas served as a catalyst for a renewed effort.
"The most important thing when we came home was to make sure that these guys still had a real strong belief that their coaches thought that this was a good team," Rose said. "We were really positive with the guys. We addressed some real issues and the guys responded to that. But this is a real reflection of the character of these guys and the leaders of this team, the seniors — Brock (Zylstra), Craig (Cusick) and Brandon (Davies)."
The winner of the BYU-Baylor semifinal game Tuesday will meet the winner of Maryland-Iowa in the championship showdown Thursday.
Of course, this isn't the Cougars' first trip to New York this season. Back in mid-November, they participated in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where they lost to Florida State and Notre Dame.
When Rose first accepted the invitation to play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic a couple of years ago, it was scheduled to be played at Madison Square Garden. Later, it was moved to the sparkling-new Barclays Center, though Rose was a little disappointed at that time that it wasn’t being held at historic MSG.
Some five months after playing in Brooklyn, his team will have the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden.
"We have some unfinished business back there. We went up there with high hopes and we came home with two losses," Austin said of his team's November visit to New York. "The first game against Florida State, they shot lights-out against us. Against Notre Dame, that's a game we easily could have won. Coming home from that, we were all disappointed. For the chance to go back there and play some more games, it's going to be exciting. It's all about winning two games."
While Rose has been to Madison Square Garden before, he's never played or coached there. He said his team won't be able practice at the arena Monday. The first time his team will be able to take the floor at Madison Square Garden will be Tuesday afternoon, prior to the game.
"Every time you get an opportunity to do something that's new, you look forward to the opportunity and try to take advantage of it," Rose said. "I've talked to a lot of guys about playing there. It's an interesting setting."
NIT Semifinals — Tuesday
No. 3 BYU (24-11) vs. No. 2 Baylor (21-14)
Madison Square Garden, New York City
5 p.m. MDT
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM