NEW ORLEANS — Amid all the why-nots and how-comes surrounding BYU's Sweet 16 loss to Florida on Thursday, there was one major question begging to be answered: What were they doing there in the first place?
That's not a knock, it's a compliment. Should this team really have been playing for the Elite Eight?
By all rights, the Cougars should only have been in New Orleans for some good etouffe and a little R&R. Logically, BYU's season could well have ended on a February afternoon in San Diego, a March night in Las Vegas or sometime in between. It's true BYU had Jimmer Fredette, the nation's leading scorer, but it also had things happen that would have knocked other teams on their wallets.
This was a team that posed like a glamor shot even when a tooth or two was missing. Here it is, late March, and finally the run is over thanks to an 83-74 overtime loss to Florida. The fact the Cougars came one five-minute overtime from the Elite Eight begs another question: How good could the team have been with a full roster? It was downright irrepressible as it was.
Talk about landing a plane safely with one of the engines on fire. The Cougars played 28 games without starting forward Chris Collinsworth and the last eight without starting center Brandon Davies, which meant they finished the season minus a combined 12 rebounds and 17 points a night. Collinsworth exited early in January after being unable to fight off a knee injury. Meanwhile, Davies was dismissed in early March for an honor code violation. In a minor concern, Collinsworth's brother Kyle missed a game with a concussion.
Like Buddy Holly and John Lennon, you have wonder what music they might have made. They beat San Diego State twice without the elder Collinsworth, beat New Mexico, Wofford and Gonzaga without both he and Davies.
And while it might not go down as the greatest BYU team in history, it was close. It got ranked as high as No. 3, twice won 10 straight games and terrorized opponents from Fresno to Buffalo and points in between.
But eventually came the final game that ended with Fredette looking like he had bumped into a blender. His chin was taped, thanks to a spill in the second half. He was also limping after straining or cramping his calf.
"This team has been extremely tough, resilient, and we've fought through a lot of things," said Fredette. "And you know, a lot of people didn't think we could even make it this far. We believed in ourselves and we thought that we could do it."
Ultimately the troubles finally dragged the Cougars down from behind. They had enough heart, just not enough Jimmers. In a way, even Jimmer wasn't himself. He got 32 points but made just 11-of-29 shots. He missed two 3s, threw a bad pass and got whistled for traveling in the closing minutes of regulation. He probably tried to do too much, but it's not like they were going far without him.
For much of Thursday, it seemed the Cougars would beat the same team they edged in double-overtime a year ago. They fell behind by by 10 in the first half but heaved back into a tie at the break. They slipped behind by six in the second half, then tied it with 2:46 to go. A chance to lead came with 35 seconds left, when Kyle Collingworth made the first but missed a second free throw. Florida couldn't score and the game went into overtime. BYU trailed thereafter.
While all teams talk about adversity, this one actually had some. For a team with two starters gone as it entered the postseason, the run was at least improbable and at best impressive.
"We were able to advance twice and came pretty close to advancing the third time," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "That will probably feel better later."
Once he realizes they kept moving, even when parts went missing.