PROVO — If BYU had to pinpoint a turning point of the season, it probably occurred at Cox Arena in San Diego, Calif.
On Feb. 12, the Cougars gutted out a come-from-behind 69-66 victory over San Diego State, marking their first conference road win of the season. It began a streak that saw BYU win six of its final seven road games en route to a share of the regular season Mountain West Conference title and an MWC Tournament crown. The Cougars used to struggle away from home. Not anymore.
"I think we've gotten over that hurdle," said BYU coach Steve Cleveland.
Now the Cougars are in the NCAA Tournament and, ironically, they're returning to Cox Arena. Tonight, BYU leaves for San Diego in preparation for its Thursday night (8:30 tipoff), first-round matchup with Cincinnati.
The Cougars could have been dispatched to the East Region site at Uniondale, N.Y., and, initially, a journey to the Big Apple appealed to them. Last season, remember, they were denied a trip to New York City and the NIT Final Four when they lost at Notre Dame in the NIT quarterfinals.
"The NCAAs is so new for all of us, you like the idea of going to New York or going somewhere different," Cleveland said. "Then again, we've had pretty good success in San Diego. We're comfortable there, it's a warm climate, so there won't be any real adjustment. The bottom line, we've played at that facility several times."
The Cougars are 4-0 all-time at Cox Arena. In fact, BYU played in the first-ever Div. I game held at the 12,000-seat arena, in November, 1997. That same night was Cleveland's debut as BYU's coach and he earned his first victory there as the Cougars defeated San Diego State and snapped a school-record 21-game losing streak.
"It's an advantage for us to be playing at an arena where we've been before," said forward Mekeli Wesley, who played in his first game as a Cougar at Cox Arena. "Plus, we don't have to travel far, which is another advantage."
"A lot of my friends and family will be there," said guard Terrell Lyday. "From that aspect, it's a great place to be."
Meanwhile, Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins and the Bearcats will have to travel thousands of miles to San Diego. His team could have been assigned to play in Dayton, Ohio, just an hour or so from the Cincinnati campus. But Huggins prefers to be in San Diego.
"With this group, probably the further away from home the better," he said. "With some groups, we're better off at home. With this one, we've played better when we've been away. When they get away, I think they concentrate a little bit more. Their focus is more on basketball."
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: While Cleveland is preparing for his first NCAA Tournament experience, three of his assistants have gone through this before.
Associate head coach Dave Rose was part of Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma team, which advanced to the NCAA championship game in 1983. The Cougars lost the title tilt to North Carolina State in Albuquerque.
Assistant Nathan Call played in four NCAA Tournaments for BYU, including a loss as a senior to Louisiana State and Shaquille O'Neal in the 1992 tournament.
BYU director of basketball operations Jeff Judkins, meanwhile, has participated in numerous NCAA contests with Utah as a player and a coach, including a championship game appearance.
ODDS AND ENDS: In Monday's USA Today, analyst Danny Sheridan published the 65 teams' odds against winning the NCAA Tournament.
While Duke leads the field with three-to-one odds, BYU checked in at 5,000-to-one. The team just ahead of the Cougars, Gonzaga (also a No. 12 seed), is 1,000-to-one. Cincinnati was listed as 40-to-one.
Could be worse. Southern Utah is 25 million-to-one and Monmouth is four gazillion-to-one, according to Sheridan.
SOME GOOD NEWS: According to USA Today, No. 12 seeds have upset No. 5 seeds 18 times. The only better chance for an upset, historically, comes with a No. 11 beating a No. 6, which has happened on 19 occasions.
This is the second time BYU has been a No. 12 seed. In 1990, the Cougars faced No. 5 Clemson in the first round and lost, 49-47.