LAS VEGAS — Two postseason basketball tournaments await the BYU basketball team — one the ultimate prize, the other the obligatory precursor.
At least this year.
We're talking about this week's Mountain West Conference tournament, with the league's fourth annual event played on UNLV's home court at the Thomas & Mack Center, and the NCAA Tournament, the 65-team Mecca of college basketball events.
In past years, the only hope BYU had of advancing to the latter was by winning the former and claiming the automatic NCAA Tournament berth afforded the MWC Tournament champion.
At the inaugural MWC tournament three years ago, the Cougars could only qualify for the NCAAs by winning the conference playoffs outright. They didn't, losing to UNLV in the finals.
Even as the conference tri-champion two years ago, the Cougars were told their only chance of making the NCAAs was to win the league tournament and receive the automatic bid. They did, edging New Mexico in the championship game.
Last year, BYU was eliminated by eventual MWC Tournament champion San Diego State in the opening quarterfinal round.
This year, the Cougars seem to be a lock for the NCAAs, posting 22 victories, sharing the regular-season Mountain West title with Utah and being ranked in the Top 20 in both RPI and strength of schedule — two key factors considered by the NCAA selection committee.
So, how important is the conference tournament, which BYU begins Thursday at 1 p.m. MST against New Mexico? Because in the big picture, the NCAA Tournament is a higher priority than the Mountain West version, right?
"Wouldn't you rather compete for a national championship," replied BYU forward Mark Bigelow.
But in the mind of BYU coach Steve Cleveland, the Cougars haven't clinched anything yet, even though most college hoops prognosticators have projected his team as an NCAA Tournament lock and seeded as high as a No. 8.
"Nobody told me we're in, so right now we're playing to get in," said Cleveland in his best Jerry Sloan form.
"If we want a sure thing and we want the automatic bid, you've got to win this thing. Anything else than that, you put in the hands of people you don't know. . . . If you win out, you've got a lock on the tournament. Anything else is speculation."
Cleveland suggests this week of college basketball conference tournaments being played across the country is bigger than March Madness itself, giving the collective excitement, hype and exposure. "It doesn't go unnoticed by our players," he said.
And conceding the likelihood of an NCAA berth for his Cougars, the coach says results in a conference seeding have direct results on NCAA seeding. "If you win this tournament, certainly you would improve your seeding by an additional three wins," he said. "Conversely, maybe you could hurt yourself, too (with a loss)."
That and momentum in a conference tournament can be carried over into the NCAAs.
The Cougars begin the 2003 postseason against a New Mexico team it beat twice — most recently less than ten days ago.
The Lobos are led by MWC Player of the Year and NCAA Division I scoring leader Ruben Douglas, a 6-foot-5 senior guard who averaged 28.3 points a game.
"Anytime you have a player like Ruben Douglas playing and then playing them for a third time — you never know," Bigelow said. "He could go off for 50 against you and make that a real struggle."
A real struggle is what Cleveland remembers, as BYU held on for a 91-81 victory over the Lobos in Albuquerque on March 3. "Our guys were in a dogfight at their place, and it's still pretty fresh on their minds," said the coach, adding "we had to play one of our best games and still almost lost."
Despite Douglas' nonstop scoring barrages, Cleveland sees a positive impact with the Lobos. "In the last month, he has become very unselfish," he said. "Even though he takes a lot of shots and that (unselfishness) doesn't seem possible, he has actually made his teammates much better."
The Cougars are led by their senior guard, Travis Hansen, who collected an armload of honors this week alone. On Monday, he was named MWC Co-Defensive Player of the Year (with UNLV's Marcus Banks) and joined Douglas as the only unanimous all-conference first-team selections. He was also named Mountain West Player of the Week and was voted to the eight-state District 8 first team by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.
NOTES: BYU is 7-3 in neutral-court games at the Thomas & Mack Center . . . BYU and New Mexico have met six times previously in conference-tournament contests — the Lobos were 4-0 when the two teams were in the Western Athletic Conference, but the Cougars are 2-0 in the Mountain West.