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Dick Harmon: Cougars have found new life in NIT experience

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 12:59 a.m. MDT

BYU's Brandon Davies huddles with his teammates before a second-round game against Mercer of the NIT college basketball tournament on Monday, March 25, 2013, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/The Daily Herald, Spenser Heaps)  (Spenser Heaps, AP) BYU's Brandon Davies huddles with his teammates before a second-round game against Mercer of the NIT college basketball tournament on Monday, March 25, 2013, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/The Daily Herald, Spenser Heaps) (Spenser Heaps, AP)

Would you rather play a game in the NCAA tournament or reach the final four of the NIT?

A few weeks ago, that was a debate worth kicking around. Reaching the NCAA tournament is a worthy goal for any team and it’s especially on the board for Dave Rose at BYU every single season.

Going to the NIT means your team stumbled by not achieving quality wins, making big enough waves in conference play, ducked out of a league tournament early, or finished a season in a bad way.

The Cougars experienced some of all of that in 2012-13, including finishing the season 7-7 after Matt Dellavedova ripped hearts out in the Marriott Center Jan. 16, a loss that ended a 9-1 run and six straight wins.

The Cougars were never the same after that night.

Not the same. No, not at all. This downturn continued until players and staff took 11 days off from competition and games after returning from losing to San Diego in the Orleans Convention Center in Las Vegas. They got hungry. They got a little mad. They found a lot of motivation. And somehow, some way, Rose pushed some buttons that created team chemistry as good as he’s had in two seasons.

All this, BYU found in the NIT.

Some 259 points and three wins later, the Cougars are in New York City, staying at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan and practicing for Tuesday’s semifinal game against Baylor in Madison Square Garden.

There’s little debate as to what turned out to be a good thing for Rose and Company. The Cougars are on the cusp of a 25-win season. They’ve got new life. They’ve found themselves front and center on ESPN coverage on nights the NCAA tournament takes days off. Players are getting per diem money, walking down 42nd Street, seeing the Empire State Building and enjoying the life as they stroll down Madison Avenue and Times Square.

You had to remember the look on the face of Brock Zylstra in his monster performance against No. 1 seed Southern Mississippi to truly understand what the extended season for a senior meant these past weeks.

Zylstra had a smile as wide as the Gulf of Mexico after hitting one of his five 3-point buckets. He was a guy on fire and loving it. This is the epitome of college basketball and postseason.

Yes, the NIT experience has been a positive one for Rose and his team in a season that came short of expectations. It has filled an emptiness left after the losses to Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga and the setbacks against San Francisco and San Diego.

And that is what postseason play does.

The Cougars will have all they can handle in this semifinal game against the Bears. It’s all about matchups and Baylor provides multiple challenges for BYU. These include size, speed, athleticism and the knowledge that Baylor already did this scene in taking down the Cougars in Waco 79-64 back on Dec. 21.

BYU’s best chance is to continue to run and gun and see what happens. If they get in a half-court game with the Bears, they’ll get beat.

Also, in the postseason, it is a time for guards to take over games. In Baylor, the Bears have a pair of outstanding ball handlers and shooters in Brady Heslip and Pierre Jackson.

This is a game Matt Carlino has to bring everything he has to the court.

BYU is capable of out-bombing Baylor if the Cougars get hot, but it hasn’t been a consistent mode of operation this season, albeit you couldn’t tell that from three NIT games of late.

Baylor, on the other hand, is also capable of playing that game. In the first NIT win, the Bears made 16 of 23 from distance and scored 112 points against Long Beach State. The CSLB coach, however, said his team came out and played the part of cardboard cutouts that night.

Regardless, this Baylor-BYU game is a contest of NCAA tournament orphans — who are motivated.

And there are more than 330 Division I teams that are sitting home.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company