LAS VEGAS — For the first time in years, the BYU basketball team enters a conference tournament knowing that it definitely must win the championship to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.
While the Cougars (21-10) haven't won a conference tournament since 2001, usually their body of work and their resume at this point of the season bodes well for an at-large inclusion into the NCAA tournament.
But not this year.
BYU's impressive streak of six consecutive NCAA tournament berths is in serious jeopardy.
Cougar coach Dave Rose knows the formula is simple in this season's West Coast Conference tournament.
"We've got to play three games," he said, "and we've got to win them all."
For No. 3 seed BYU, it starts Friday (9:30 p.m. MST, ESPNU) when the Cougars take on No. 6 seed San Diego at the Orleans Arena.
"Every conference tournament is always a fight," said forward Brandon Davies, "but with our backs against the wall, it gives us even more motivation."
Certainly, urgency is one of the operative words for the Cougars this week.
"The most important thing, when you get into a tournament, you have to understand the urgency of the game," Rose said. "The No. 1 goal is to advance."
"At times during the year we've played with a sense of urgency and our team's been really good," said guard Tyler Haws. "For any team in a tournament that feels like its back is against the wall, we're going to have an edge to us. We're going to come out fighting. Guys are getting after it (in practice). It's that time of year when everyone's on edge a little bit. We're still getting better and hopefully we can go down and make some noise in this tournament."
Though BYU has lost four of its last six games, two of those losses came at the hands of the two best teams in the WCC — Saint Mary's and Gonzaga.
Both games were close and went down to the wire, but the Cougars were unable to make the plays they needed to at the end.
Should the Cougars win Friday, they would get another crack at Saint Mary's Saturday night in the semifinals. Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the conference — and the No. 1 team in the country — is expected to advance to Monday's championship game.
For BYU, this week is an opportunity for redemption and a run at the NCAA tournament.
"We're making strides. We're banging on the door," Haws said. "We've got to keep staying aggressive and keep playing the way we're playing. I felt like in both of those games (against Saint Mary's and Gonzaga), if we had made a few more plays down the stretch, we would have won those games. We need to keep playing on attack and hopefully we'll make those plays next time."
Haws and Davies, who were All-WCC selections, will need to have strong, consistent performances this week in order for the Cougars to advance.
On top of that, Rose is looking for solid production from his entire squad.
"A real key to the success of this team is to get more than just one or two or three guys playing well," Rose said. "We need to get a whole group of guys to play their best basketball of the season. We realize there won’t be another chance. We have this (WCC) tournament to play our way into the NCAA tournament. Hopefully that sense of urgency will permeate throughout all the guys and the coaching staff."
West Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals:
No. 3 BYU (21-10) vs. No. 6 San Diego (15-17)
Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
9:30 p.m. MST
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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