LAS VEGAS — There’s a reason why they call it March Madness.
Teams that have been floundering for weeks have new life. No matter how long the odds, they get a shot at winning a conference tournament title and earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
BYU is among the hundreds of teams across the country that is jumping headlong into this opportunity. The No. 3 seeded Cougars take on No. 6 San Diego Saturday (2 p.m., MST, BYUtv) at Orleans Arena in the West Coast Conference quarterfinals.
“I’ve always said that to win a tournament, the games are all hard,” said coach Dave Rose. “But that first game is really tough because you’re dealing with a new emotion that maybe hasn’t been there the last two weeks of the season.”
Emotions could be ratcheted up even more for the Toreros, who will be playing in the postseason without their coach, Lamont Smith, who was arrested on domestic violence charges Sunday, not long after USD rallied to win at San Francisco.
Assistant coach Sam Scholl is serving as the acting head coach for the Toreros.
“Shocked, and a million different emotions. A million,” Scholl told the San Diego Union-Tribune about his reaction to this week’s developments. “We’ve been working through all those emotions.”
How will San Diego respond to the shakeup on the coaching staff?
“I know how excited kids are to play at this time of year. I believe that will remain to be seen as far as how they respond,” Rose said. “Hopefully our guys are dialed in on the challenge of trying to beat this team and not worry about all the other things that are going on.”
“They’re a great team. They have great coaches over there. Regardless of who’s coaching them, they’ll come out and play really hard,” said BYU guard Elijah Bryant. “Last time they beat us at their place. So we’re expecting a great battle from those guys. We’re looking forward to playing them.”
BYU and USD split their two regular-season games, with the Toreros smashing the Cougars in San Diego two weeks ago, 75-62. BYU went 3 of 22 from 3-point range and was mired in foul trouble from the start.
“You’ve got the attention of your players because you got beat by that team before,” Rose said.
What did the Cougars learn from that loss that they can apply Saturday?
“We’ve got to be more physical. We’ve got to come out and throw that first punch,” said forward Yoeli Childs. “At their place, they threw that first punch and had us playing on our heels, trying to get back in it for the rest of the game. We’ve got to come out, play together and play hard.”
While BYU beat USD on Jan. 20 in Provo, 74-58, the Toreros provide a tough test, matchup-wise, for the Cougars.
“There’s two things — their size and athleticism, the combination of those. They have really athletic guards and big, strong frontline guys that are skilled,” Rose said. “(Cameron) Neubauer can take the ball to the perimeter and shoot it. That spreads you out. It’s a little unorthodox. They don’t really have a low post scorer that they pound the thing in but they are very physical. It’s a combination of how physical they are and how they defend. That will be our biggest challenge.”
So how can BYU combat those challenges?
“We need to get space on the floor. When you play really good defensive teams, if you let them tighten it up, you really rely strictly on perimeter shots,” Rose said. “They are very good, one of the best in the country, at guarding the 3-point line. We’ve got to get to the basket. The way you get to the basket is by spreading these guys out and make some space.”
The winner of Saturday’s game will likely face No. 2 Saint Mary’s in Monday’s WCC semifinals.
Childs is confident that his team is equipped to make a run in this tournament.
“I don’t think we have to do anything special. We don’t have to do anything otherworldly to come out with these wins,” he said. “You saw us play really close with the Zags at their place. We had Saint Mary’s beat here. I think this team is built to win a tournament like this. We don’t have to do anything special. Guys just have to do their jobs and trust each other. People will be shocked but we won’t be.”
Shock, excitement, emotion.
That’s what March Madness is all about.
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Cougars on the air
No. 3 BYU (22-9)
vs. No. 6 San Diego (18-12)
Saturday, 2 p.m. MST Orleans Arena
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM