Preseason games are through. Conference games are over. Now basketball teams around the country push the reset button as they make a final run for inclusion in the 68-team NCAA Tournament.
BYU’s basketball team is no different. As the Cougars head down to Las Vegas ranked No. 3 in the West Coast Conference Tournament, they know the only way they will go dancing in 2018 is to win the tournament.
“It’s a really exciting time no matter where you sit in conference standings,” said BYU coach Dave Rose in a post practice press conference. “The last few years we’ve gone down with an opportunity that is pretty set, which is we need to win this tournament to get to the NCAA Tournament. … I think there is such an excitement about the postseason where everybody is back into the equation as far as an NCAA Tournament berth and how their team can actually achieve it.”
There are two giant of teams standing in BYU’s way: No. 7 Gonzaga and No. 22 Saint Mary’s. But BYU isn’t worried about that hurdle quite yet.
“We’ll worry about that as far as our situation is concerned, but they have to win two games before they get to the finals,” Rose said. “The history has shown that they’re pretty good at it. I think that there is a reason that we play the games and we don’t figure out on a phone the statistics of who’s going to win or not. Let’s win the first one and we’ll start talking about the next.”
The next game is against the San Diego Toreros (18-12), which earned the No. 6 seed in the WCC Tournament. Even more so blocking the Cougars’ Hail Mary effort for a chance at the big dance, San Diego beat the Cougars 75-62 just two weeks ago. With the postseason reset button, the Toreros are in exactly the same boat as the Cougars (22-9, 11-7) — do or die tournament style.
“I know coach we talked about how there’s hope for each team now,” said BYU junior Elijah Bryant. “You’re playing to move on. There’s no tomorrow necessarily. So you give the teams at the bottom a chance to get another shot at a top team. It re-energizes at both ends of the spectrum.”
After already playing each other two times this season, the major challenge heading into the WCC Tournament is all of the teams are familiar with each other. They know each other’s plays, tendencies and tricks.
[pullquote]”I think there is such an excitement about the postseason where everybody is back into the equation as far as an NCAA Tournament berth and how their team can actually achieve it.” — Dave Rose, BYU basketball coach[/pullquote]
“I think every game is based on matchups,” Rose said. “When you get to this time of year, everyone is so familiar with what teams do. I’d be surprised if San Diego came out and they did anything other than what they did the last few times we played them because that’s what made them a really good team. They’ve won 18 games on the season, so I think that it takes a real team effort during the postseason games.”
Despite the familiarity, Rose says the postseason doesn’t change what the Cougars do on the court. There are no new tricks nor saved plays.
“We try to do what we do, maybe be a little bit better and maybe be a little more focused on the opportunities that are for our advantage,” Rose said.
But things will need to change if BYU wants to win against San Diego — and the Cougars know that. While USD is distracted after losing its head coach Lamont Smith, who was arrested Sunday on suspicion of domestic violence, BYU knows USD is thirsty for a win.
BYU split the season game against USD during conference play, winning the first game in January. The second time around the Toreros aggressive defense proved too much for the Cougars. BYU sophomore forward Yoeli Childs says the Cougars will need to take control of the game from the beginning to advance in the tournament.
“We just got to be more physical. We need to come out and throw that first punch,” Childs said. “I think at their place they threw that first punch and had us playing on our heels, trying to get back in it the rest of the game. So we need to take every game very seriously and come out and play as a team and play together and play hard.”
Rose said USD is a challenging matchup for his team since the Toreros have athletic guards and big frontline. Plus, he says the Toreros physical defense causes the Cougars trouble on offense. To interrupt USD’s efficient defense, BYU has a strict strategy to space the floor.
“When you play really good defensive teams, you’ve got to really compact it and tighten it up and really rely strictly on perimeter size,” Rose said. “They are really good, they are one of the best in the country, of defending the 3-point line, so we can’t just yield. We’ve got to get to the basket.”
BYU kicks off the WCC Tournament against USD on Saturday, March 3 at 2 p.m. MST in Las Vegas. The game will be broadcast on BYUtv.