By Stephen Vincent
For the Deseret News
With Thursday’s night’s loss at San Diego, BYU lost some of its footing as an NCAA Bubble team. At the start of the week, ESPN’s NCAA Tournament Projections list the Cougars among the teams on their list of “Next Four Out.” The Cougars will probably slide out of that slot as a result of their loss.
The Cougars' bubble, though, has not burst. The loss to San Diego caused BYU to tumble 11 spots in the RPI rankings to No. 55, but the Cougars still have a month to repair the damage from the loss at Jenny Craig Pavilion. The Cougars’ NCAA Tournament hopes are in critical condition, but recovery is possible.
The next month will determine whether BYU goes dancing. Here is why I think the Cougars will get an invitation.
Stephen Vincent is a St. George native and a third-year law student at Arizona State University.
St. Mary’s is 3-0 against BYU since the Cougars joined the West Coast Conference. Last year, the Men from Moraga were outstanding. This year’s Gaels are still stellar but not quite what they were last year. Nevertheless, Dellavedova’s dagger in Provo gives the Gaels an aura of invincibility when it comes to playing BYU. This, however, will not last.
BYU will likely face St. Mary’s two more times this year—in Moraga on Feb. 21 and in the West Coast Conference semifinals. BYU has to win at least one, and I believe they will find a way to win at least one of those contests. The Gaels are a good team but not good enough to beat BYU three times in one season. If the Cougars can beat the Gaels in Moraga, the Conference semifinal matchup could well be a NCAA play-in game of sorts, as St. Mary’s is also a bubble team.
Coming into this month, BYU was 36-6 all-time in February under Coach Dave Rose, an .857 winning percentage that is significantly higher than Rose's career .772 winning percentage. This shows the Cougars get better as the season progresses. This February got off to an ominous start in San Diego but expect the Cougars to rebound and finish the regular season strong. Another strong February will build the Cougars' resume while other bubble teams falter. Teams that finish the season strong also receive more favorable treatment from the Tournament Committee.
The gaping hole in the Cougars' resume is the lack of a win over an RPI Top 50 team. A win over the Bulldogs on Feb. 28 would cure that deficiency in a major way. A win over a Top 10 team could move the Cougars into the tournament. The loss San Diego makes this Gonzaga game a must-win. After last month's 83-63 debacle in Spokane, BYU's chances in the rematch may seem doubtful, but the Bulldogs will have to win in the Marriott Center, always a tough task. Plus, Tyler Haws will not go 0-for-9 from the field again.
If Haws can get his usual 20 instead of the one point he scored in Spokane, then the 20-point turnaround should be accomplished. The Cougars’ biggest advantage, though, is having a full week to prepare for the Bulldogs, as BYU has a bye in conference play the Saturday before this crucial contest. Those extra days of preparation should enable Coach Rose and his staff find a game plan that will beat the Bulldogs.
Haws has had an incredible sophomore season, averaging over 20.7 points per game. His lackluster performance in Spokane has been his only blip this year, but he has bounced back nicely in the games since. The Gonzaga game was an aberration and learning experience. Expect Haws to continue to pour in 20 points a night and be the leader who guides BYU to another NCAA Tournament.
The beauty of the NCAA Tournament is that every team, even those having the most miserable of seasons, is alive until they lose in the conference tournament. If the Cougars cannot beat Gonzaga in Provo or St. Mary’s in Moraga or suffer another debilitating loss, they may enter the West Coast Conference Tournament needing to win the tournament to make the NCAA Tournament.
Rose’s track record as a head coach in conference tournaments is not good, dating back to his days as Dixie College’s head coach, and they will have to get through St. Mary’s and Gonzaga to win big in Vegas. Still, the Cougars large fan base should give them a home court advantage in Las Vegas, and that could give BYU a chance at the conference title.