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BYU rises to No. 15 in AP poll, No. 9 in NET rankings; Cougars a ‘must-watch team’

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BYU Cougars head coach Mark Pope claps his hands as BYU and Cal State Fullerton play a college basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU’s meteoric rise in the rankings continues.

Two weeks ago, the Cougars made their first appearance in The Associated Press poll in nine years, at No. 23, then vaulted six spots to No. 17 last week after upsetting No. 2 Gonzaga. On Monday, BYU moved up two more spots to No. 15 in the AP poll

The Cougars, who have won nine consecutive games and closed out the regular season last Saturday with an 81-64 victory at Pepperdine, have also jumped in other rankings.

BYU (24-7, 13-3) is No. 9 in the NET, the NCAA’s evaluation tool ranking used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, and is No. 11 in Kenpom.com and No. 12 in Andy Katz’s Power 36.

“The Cougars are going to be a must-watch team in the WCC and NCAA tournament,” Katz wrote. 

BYU has played three teams currently ranked in the top five of the AP poll — No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 5 San Diego State. The Cougars lost to all three teams before beating the Zags 91-78 on Feb. 22 in Provo. BYU also defeated No. 21 Houston in November.  

Coach Mark Pope said his team benefited from playing a challenging nonconference schedule. 

“The best thing that a hard (schedule) does is it exposes your weaknesses as a coach, it exposes your team’s weaknesses and it exposes blind spots,” he said Saturday. “Hopefully, we’ve had enough competitive games that a lot of our blind spots and deficiencies have been exposed and hopefully we addressed them. That’s what a tough schedule does for you.”

Three of BYU’s losses came in overtime on the road against Boise State, Utah and Saint Mary’s. The Cougars have posted a 16-2 record with Yoeli Childs, who scored a career-high 38 points against Pepperdine, in the lineup. Childs earned the second of back-to-back West Coast Conference Player of the Week honors Monday. 

Meanwhile, BYU posted a perfect 8-0 record in February. 

“You think about five top-25 teams that lost this week. Five lost last week,” Pope said. “This is the season where it’s so hard to rally around the emotional intensity, especially a team that’s won eight in a row. For these guys to do this, it’s incredibly special.”

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projects BYU as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, playing in St. Louis against either No. 11 Cincinnati or No. 11 Stanford.

Because the Cougars don’t play on Sundays, they can only be assigned to the West or Midwest regions of the NCAA Tournament because those are the two regions with Thursday-Saturday games in the semifinals and the finals. 

For its first-round game, BYU can only go to one of four locations — St. Louis, Spokane, Washington, Tampa, Florida, or Albany, New York — because they are the sites with Thursday-Saturday first- and second-round games. 

The Cougars earned the No. 2 seed in the West Coast Conference Tournament, which tips off Thursday. BYU has received a triple bye to next Monday’s semifinals with a likely showdown against No. 3 Saint Mary’s. The winner of that semifinal contest is expected to face Gonzaga in the WCC championship game March 10. BYU hasn’t won a conference tournament title since 2001. 

Pope is pleased with the way his team has played unselfishly this season.

“We’re not the No. (15) ranked team in America right now because everybody’s doing it the way they want to do it,” he said. “Everybody is making sacrifices for the team. It’s such a gospel principle. Whatever faith you might subscribe to, it’s all founded on when you really give of yourself, you get back double in return. That is true in basketball and it’s true in everything in life. They’re all getting back double right now.”