PROVO — BYU outlasted Portland Saturday to finish as the No. 3 seed heading to Las Vegas for the West Coast Conference Tournament but how ready are the Cougars for postseason play?
BYU's ark is a Noah short right now.
Cougar senior Noah Hartsock, the WCC's leading scorer and shot-blocker, was a no-show for the second straight game Saturday. He didn't shoot in seven minutes at Gonzaga Thursday and didn't make it to the floor Saturday in BYU's 76-66 win over Portland after injuring his knee and ankle against Santa Clara a week ago.
Without Hartsock, BYU is a gutty, feisty team that plays hard but they are not a consistent force on the offensive side of the court. The Cougars will play the Thursday winner of San Diego and Pepperdine on Friday in the Orleans Arena.
The Cougars could win that game, but without Hartsock, chances of advancing beyond Friday would be tough if the star from Oklahoma is not close to top form. He is that good and is critically needed by Dave Rose.
Hartsock is the face of this Cougar team. He is what Brock Zylstra called their "fallback plan" because he delivers when BYU needs points.
"We are twice as good when Noah is in there," said senior Charles Abouo.
"Noah is Mr. Reliability for us," said Zylstra.
The good news is BYU now has six days' rest for Hartsock to heal.
In his absence, the workload has fallen upon junior center Brandon Davies who had 25 points against Portland on 10 of 13 field goals. In BYU's two games without Hartsock, Davies has scored 48.
But that is not enough.
The other good news is BYU is not in a bracket that pits them against a very hot San Francisco team and won't face league champion St. Mary's until the final game Monday if they advance.
That the WCC has no Sunday game also works to BYU's advantage with these injuries.
BYU is perched in a good spot in Las Vegas. Neither Pepperdine or San Diego will travel well and Cougar fans are expected to hit the Orleans in force this weekend, gobbling up tickets. The event is sold out.
Hartsock could have played Saturday but there was no reason he should have against the 6-22, 2-12 Pilots.
If you'd put a gun to his head and forced him to play, Hartsock said he would have on senior night Saturday. "But I wouldn't have power and I wouldn't want to play unless I can be productive."
By multiple accounts, Hartsock's knee is fine, it is his calf muscle and an ankle he reinjured last week that is physically keeping him from full recovery. The ankle is more serious than the knee and more rest will allow the inflammation to subside. Question is, does BYU's big gun have enough time.
"I'd like to get in at least one practice before the first game," said Hartsock.
"I've been with a sore ankle for a long time this season."
This extended rest will be good for point guard Matt Carlino (knee) and freshman post-player Nate Austin, who tweaked an ankle Saturday in his first career start shortly after tipoff.
The Cougars enter postseason play having won six of their last seven games and six of their last seven road games — that includes a win at Virginia Tech in ACC territory on Jan. 25.
Lastly, BYU's squad is fired up to get to the Orleans Arena and get a crack at St. Mary's, who swept them this season.
But even more exhilarating, say some players, is an opportunity to play off UNLV's home court where the Rebels fed off the MWC tournament for so many years, usually at the expense of the Cougars.
It is a whole new deal, this March Vegas trip. BYU's team is counting on the Cougars having the majority of fans in the seats.
"We need to win it all to get into the NCAA Tournament," said Abouo. But he believes the 24-7 Cougars have a good enough body of work that if they win one game, they'll receive an automatic NCAA bid.
That destiny will be much more attainable with Hartsock than without him.
Time will tell if the Cougars have that luxury.
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