SAN DIEGO — Teetering precariously on the NCAA tournament bubble, BYU has battled back from tough stretches this season to register crucial wins in the last two weeks.
As the calendar turns to March, the Cougars are on the cusp of reaching their goal of returning to the NCAA tournament — and how they play over the next week or so will determine their postseason fate.
The annual rite of March begins Saturday (2 p.m. MST, Root) when BYU invades Jenny Craig Pavilion for a showdown with San Diego in its West Coast Conference regular-season finale.
A Cougar win would clinch second place in the final WCC standings and the No. 2 seed in next week’s WCC tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
“It’s a huge game for us going into the WCC tournament,” guard Kyle Collinsworth said of Saturday’s game. “Just for us, we need this win. We need to close out the regular season in a good way and put us in a good spot for March Madness and the future. It’s huge for us, and we need to win it.”
What’s at stake Saturday?
“I think the momentum we have,” said guard Anson Winder. “We’re on a good streak right now, and riding a nice wave right now. Momentum going into the tournament is what we want to keep.”
After Saturday’s game, BYU (20-10, 12-5) won’t play again until next Saturday in the WCC tournament quarterfinals.
Gonzaga beat Pacific 70-53 Thursday night to clinch the outright WCC regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
San Diego (16-14, 7-10) is also playing for tournament seeding, as the Toreros look to avoid playing in Thursday’s first round.
USD is coming off an upset win over Gonzaga last Saturday at home.
“I think they’re going to have a lot of enthusiasm and they’re going to be excited to play us,” Winder said. “We’re expecting their best game.”
While the Cougars crushed San Diego on Jan. 4 in Provo, 87-53, they lost twice to the Toreros last season, once at Jenny Craig Pavilion and once in the WCC tournament.
Tyler Haws remembers those two losses.
“We didn’t guard the 3-point line the right way,” he said. “We had some letdowns on the defensive end that let them stay in the game. I remember those games came down to a few plays.”
One of the keys Saturday, Haws said, is to play good defense against San Diego guards Johnny Dee and Christopher Anderson.
“Chris Anderson is very quick and the facilitator for everything they do. Johnny Dee is a great shooter and you can’t leave him, no matter where he is on the floor.”
Dee’s ability to shoot 3-pointers heightens the intensity for all of BYU’s players on defense.
“He puts a lot of pressure on us because when we’re in the zone, we have to get out to the corner and make sure he doesn’t get any corner shots off,” said forward Eric Mika. “He moves so well within their offense. It’s hard to keep track of him all of the time. We’ve got to be at our best and constantly looking for him, making sure we don’t lose him in the back of that zone.”
While the Cougars prefer to play an up-tempo approach, the Toreros prefer to slow things down.
“They kind of lull teams to sleep,” Mika said.
“Pace will be important,” said coach Dave Rose. “Defensive execution, rebounding the ball, shot selection, our ability to make shots — all of those things are important. But if we can play at the pace we want to, it will be way different for them.”
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company