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BYU basketball: Cougars laying the groundwork for prime postseason position

PROVO — With a No. 12 national ranking, a 22-2 overall mark and a 7-1 league record in hand, the BYU Cougars like where they're sitting heading into the final half of the Mountain West Conference men's basketball schedule.

"This is right where we want to be," junior guard Jimmer Fredette said. "We want to be at the top and have everyone else chasing us."

Teammate Jackson Emery added, "Not having to depend on someone else losing is a big thing. We're the ones with the lead. We're the ones the others have to catch. So we just have to take care of our own business."

"If we do what we do, we're going to be OK because we control our own destiny," senior forward Jonathan Tavernari said.

But even though the Cougars, with a one-game lead over New Mexico and UNLV, are on a good path to win a fourth-straight MWC regular season championship and get a favorable seed into the NCAA Tournament in March, they know the success they've experienced so far could all go for naught if they don't finish the season strong.

"I ran a marathon in 1995, and we're about at the 13-mile mark, and (getting there) was the easy part," coach Dave Rose said.

Considering where the Cougars stand, anything less than surpassing past accomplishments would be a disappointment to most BYU fans.

The Cougars not only hope to win the MWC regular-season title, but the MWC Tournament title as well — something they've done only once in 11 years — and advance in the NCAA Tournament — something they haven't done in 17 years and only three times in their past 15 NCAA Tournament trips.

"We're nowhere near what we want to achieve. We still have a lot left that we want to accomplish," Emery said.

Right now, the so-called bracket experts are predicting the Cougars between a No. 3 and No. 6 seed. The last time they were at least a No. 6 seed, in 1981, they advanced all the way to the Elite Eight. They've won only three NCAA Tournament games with a seed higher than No. 6.

"It would definitely help if we get a better seed, but to do that we have to continue to win," Fredette said.

The Cougars know it's a cliche', but they believe the key to finishing the year strong is to take it one game at a time and treat every conference game just as important as the next. Also, winning on the road will go a long way to reaching their goals and to being successful in postseason play.

"If we can go down and win at UNLV (today), that's going to be a big confidence-builder," Emery said. "For one, that's where the Mountain West tournament is going to be. Two, wherever we're going to play in the NCAA Tournament is going to be on the road. So winning on the road is a big thing and that's what we have to focus on."

The Cougars also need to continue playing with the same traits that have led them to this point — great depth, scoring diversity, strong defense and consistent effort.

"I like the make-up of this team," Rose said. "I like the leadership, I like the team chemistry and I like their commitment to our team. Hopefully, we can keep that going."

Even if the Cougars do finish conference play strong and get a high NCAA Tournament seed, they recognize that alone is no guarantee for postseason success.

"You're going to play a good team no matter what, because there's a reason why they're there. It's not like they're a bad team or just lucky. They earned getting there," Emery said.

ONE LESS CENTER: When the Cougars hit the court today at the Thomas & Mack Center against the UNLV Runnin' Rebels, they'll be without the services of freshman center Brandon Davies.

On Monday, Davies began experiencing severe abdominal pain. He played three minutes against TCU on Tuesday, but a scan on Wednesday revealed an inflamed appendix. An appendectomy was performed Wednesday night and he'll be out 10-14 days.

"Every person, I think, heals a little bit different. But what you don't want to do is force him into something where he has a setback," Rose said.

There's an outside chance he'll be back for the Feb. 13 home game against Air Force, but he'll more likely return for the two-game road trip the following week to Colorado State and Wyoming.

e-mail: jimr@desnews.com

Cougars on the air

No. 12 BYU (22-2, 7-1) vs. UNLV (18-4, 6-2)

Today, 2 p.m.

Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas

TV: Versus Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM