PROVO — Across the hall from where Dave Rose was speaking, Jimmer Fredette looked on in silence. Neither Mike Smith nor Devin Durrant uttered a word. Danny Ainge watched in muted approval.
They were there at the Marriott Center, along with a host of other BYU greats.
In a spiritual sort of way.
Ghosts of NCAA tournaments past sometimes have a penchant for hanging around. In this case, they hang in pictures that adorn the pressroom.
But it’s hard not to notice that some of them seem to be smiling.
BYU nabbed its 28th invitation on Sunday in surprising fashion. Picked by some experts to be a last-team-in, or a no-show, the Cougars claimed the No. 10 seed in the West Regional. They will play Oregon, a team they lost to in overtime in December.
Now they must play the Ducks without Kyle Collinsworth, the team’s second-best player. So the challenge should be equally daunting as that December night in Eugene. That outcome didn’t sit well with the Cougars, if you ask their coach.
“I remember the locker room,” Rose said, sounding like a man remembering his last case of food poisoning.
The fact BYU got in the bracket without even a play-in game surprised many. It’s true the Cougars faced a rigorous non-conference schedule that included seven of this year’s tournament teams. At the same time, some unlikely midseason losses cost them the regular-season championship and a superior Gonzaga team cost them the conference tournament.
Still, this is BYU. It’s not the Cougars’ first prom. They’ve done this enough times to recite the dance card in their sleep: Sunday media interviews, a couple of days of practice and a flight to wherever, to play whomever. Then comes the game, but not until they’ve answered all the questions about Mormons that anyone could imagine.
Then they do their best to show the world why ward ball is so popular.
While the Cougars’ schedule was probably the biggest factor in their selection, another big deal was their history. With the NCAA’s selection committee, it never hurts to be in recent memory. BYU has been included seven of the last nine years, including 2011 when they made the Sweet 16.
Other years, the Cougars were close to advancing, but lost in agonizingly close games. Most fans know of the Cougars’ 1981 run to the Elite Eight. Less noisy, for obvious reasons, was the 1990 regional in Hartford, when the Cougars’ Marty Haws narrowly missed a buzzer shot in a loss to Clemson.
“I think it still haunts him a little bit,” said Tyler Haws, son of the former BYU great.
That’s not to say the elder Haws didn’t win games, too. He just happened to miss at the wrong moment. The pro-BYU crowd gasped like it had caught a cold wind. That’s the appeal of the tournament. Big highs and low lows, with nothing in between.
As the tournament pairings started to appear on Sunday, the players began wondering.
“We were kind of sweating a little bit,” Haws said.
However, BYU is a regular.
“Some years, history played a big role, other years it doesn’t,” Haws continued. “But BYU’s got a great history of making the tournament and hopefully we can go in with the right mindset and feel like we can make a run.”
Rose and athletics director Tom Holmoe decided last off-season to bulk up on name opponents. Though they don’t say it directly, the thinking was that beating West Coast Conference teams wouldn’t be enough for an at-large bid. So they signed up for something that approximated a combination of bare-knuckle boxing and cliff diving. They played Iowa State, Massachusetts, Wichita State and Oregon (losses), as well as Stanford and Texas (wins). Also on the non-conference slate: tourney-bound Weber State.
“I felt we left it all out on the table,” Haws said.
They played the best schedule they could. But they also relied on their genealogy. The selection committee doesn’t have to be told who’s been there before.
Ainge and friends didn’t even make a peep.
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