OKLAHOMA CITY — The BYU Cougars are trying to push it aside and keep the focus on this year's team, but they just can't seem to escape the program's past success, or lack thereof, in the NCAA Tournament.
Reporter after reporter — some from Utah, some from Florida and some from national media outlets — has questioned BYU's coaches and players the past few days on how they plan to finally end the school's eight-game losing streak and deal with the pressure of not winning a first-round game since 1993.
"This is a unique group of guys, and they have worked really hard and have earned this opportunity," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "And they need to feel, you know, the pressure that that brings to this team only, and they don't need to feel anything else."
The Cougars, preparing to face Florida today at the Ford Center in downtown Oklahoma City, are saying the past, if anything, is more motivation than pressure.
"We know that we haven't won here for awhile, but we're a totally different team and this is a totally different time," junior guard Jimmer Fredette said. "So, it's time for us to go out and play hard and execute, and hopefully advance in the tournament."
The word "advance" might be the key point in that statement. Even though it would be a huge step, the Cougars say they're not looking to win just one game.
"We have to focus on what's ahead of us, and that's Florida," junior guard Jackson Emery said. "But it's not our goal to just end the streak. Our goal is to keep going."
Florida, even though the program has won 12 straight tournament games, isn't exactly coming in without a monkey of its own to shed. Many felt the Gators, losing four of their final five games, were fortunate to be invited to the Big Dance. And after winning back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007, the Gators missed the tournament the past two years.
"We know that they've lost the last couple of years, but we don't have any tournament wins the last couple of years either," Florida forward Dan Werner said. "You put all that to the side and it's all about this game. When the ball goes up, people aren't thinking about what everyone did the last couple of years. You can't be playing to try to prove people wrong. We just have to worry about ourselves, and the fact is that we are here and we have a great opportunity."
For BYU, the key is getting off to a better start. In the Cougars' tournament losses the past two years to Texas A&M they fell behind big early and were playing catch-up the rest of the way.
"We've got to come ready to play, and be ready to play from the opening tip. When you dig a hole here it's really hard to get out of, and we've found that out the past couple of years," Emery said. "If you get out and start fighting it from the get-go, you'll be fighting it the whole game. It also sends the message to the other team that we're going to play 40 minutes of basketball. So if there's a loose ball, dive after it. If there's a rebound, go get it."
Setting a fast and high-scoring tempo early would also favor BYU.
"We're here to play our style of basketball. The coaches haven't thrown in anything different than we've done all year. We haven't switched anything, and we haven't changed anything. If we play our style of basketball, that's what hurts teams," Emery said.
For BYU to run, however, the Cougars must contain what Florida does best — and that's rebounding the basketball. The Gators are similar to San Diego State, and thrive off of offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
"If we rebound the ball and take off, they're going to get tired and they're not going to get easy shots," Emery said.
Florida's balance, with all five starters averaging double-digits but none averaging more than 13 points per game, is another challenge the Cougars face.
"Obviously, whichever team does what it does best is going to have the best chance of winning the game," Werner said.
Stopping Fredette will be Florida's main focus. But if the Gators pay too much attention to BYU's floor general, the Cougars have seven or eight other guys who can do some damage. Depth might be the wildcard in this game.
"They understand how to play the game, that's the biggest thing. Their basketball IQ is through the roof. The way they get the ball in the post and then cut around the post amazes me. This is definitely going to be a tough challenge for us," Werner said.
Regardless of the strengths and weaknesses of each team, in the end, execution and effort will be the determining factors.
"We need to go out and play harder than we've ever played before," Fredette said. "Hopefully we can get things going our way and shots will be falling. You never know, but as long as we go out there and play hard and give it a great effort I think that will help us out."