With three weeks until No. 24 BYU tips off West Coast Conference play, the Cougars’ aggressive nonconference scheduling approach is paying dividends.
Cougars on the air
No. 24 BYU (8-1)
vs. Creighton (7-2)
Saturday, 10 a.m. MST
Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
There’s another tough game away from home Saturday (10 a.m. MST, FS1) in a morning showdown at Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, against Big East opponent Creighton.
BYU (8-1) is No. 20 in the latest NET rankings after its 82-71 victory over Utah State last Wednesday. The Bluejays (7-2) are No. 82 in the NET rankings and are coming off a 64-58 loss to No. 19 Iowa State.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Cougars as a No. 6 seed in his projected NCAA Tournament field released Friday. Three other WCC teams — Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco — are also in Lunardi’s projections.
“We’re earning our way, for sure. This has been a brutal schedule,” said coach Mark Pope. “It’s either a (conference) championship team or an in-state team. It is rewarding that these guys have earned their way into a good spot. We got to spend another week in the (Associated Press) top 25, which was in jeopardy … In all the metrics, we’re top 25. That’s a place we feel like we want to earn that spot every week.”
BYU has wins over Cleveland State, San Diego State, Oregon, Texas Southern, Utah, Missouri State and USU this season. Its lone loss was in overtime at Utah Valley University.
The Cougars are in the middle of a stretch of games where they are spending plenty of time on the road. They won’t be back at the Marriott Center until Dec. 29.
Pope said he set up a schedule that would challenge his team and give it an opportunity to learn about itself.
How was BYU able to set up this game against Creighton?
“It really came about by calling every single team in the country like 100 times,” Pope said. “We’re super excited about it. It’s a neutral-neutral. We’re trying to get that back in (Las) Vegas maybe next year.”
Pope is looking forward to the matchup against Creighton coach Greg McDermott, who led the Bluejays to their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1974.
“It’s a great team. Coach McDermott, I actually watch his stuff a lot,” Pope said. “Coach McDermott is one of the top coaches and he’s one of the most creative offensive coaches in the country. I’m a huge fan. I watch his clips in the summer to try to learn. He just brings new stuff all the time. I’m like, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ I have a ton of respect for him. It’s obviously a great program and a great league. We’re super excited about that game.”
Creighton senior forward Ryan Hawkins, a transfer from Missouri State, is averaging a team-high 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Freshman guard Ryan Nembhard leads the team in assists (4.9 per game). He is the younger brother of Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard.
Sioux Falls is located about three hours from Creighton’s campus in Omaha, Nebraska, so the Bluejays are expected to have a home-court advantage.
“It’s a Big East team with an unbelievable tradition and history. It’s kind of like playing Oregon at Portland,” Pope said. “It’s basically a home game (for Creighton). It’s going to be an incredible challenge. We’re excited.”
“We know it’s going to be a battle. Road games are tough,” said guard Alex Barcello, who scored 17 points in the win over Utah State. “We’ll try to get better at our pace and try to guard better. That’s where we get most of our energy from, guarding and crashing the boards, and just let that translate to offense.”
Against the Aggies, the Cougars hit 11 3-pointers, tying their season-high. Trevin Knell knocked down three 3-pointers, all in the first half, while Barcello, Te’Jon Lucas and Spencer Johnson made two apiece. And Hunter Erickson, who has seen his playing time increase the past week, made his first 3-pointer of the season.
Going into the USU game, BYU was one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country.
“We’re constantly working on it. We shoot every day. And the way we shoot, finish your shot and trust your shot will always stay the same. Then getting a volume of reps of 3s,” Pope said. “Earning better shots is important. Our pace does that. Our pace took a positive step forward from playing our first games in a stagnant, ugly, slow, plodding, Clydesdale pace.
“We actually had a little pace last Saturday (against Missouri State). That’s an adjustment of who we are now. We’re not the most dominating rebounding team in the country anymore. We’ll play with more pace. That will help us in earning better shots.”
Since the Cougars’ loss at UVU, they’ve been forced to go smaller and change their style of play due to 6-foot-9 forward Gavin Baxter’s season-ending injury. BYU has also been playing this season without 6-11 center Richard Harward, who is sidelined due to health reasons.
“Great two wins coming off the tough loss we had last week,” Barcello said.
“These guys have done a really good job of stepping into roles they’re not familiar with after losing Gavin and Richard early in the season. I think we’re doing a really good job battling through our frustration.”
The way Barcello sees it, his team’s increased pace will cause problems for opposing teams.
“I think it’s extremely hard for opposing teams to guard us because we’ve got a lot of guys that can create and play-make off the bounce,” he said. “I’m very confident that we have a lot of playmakers to do that.”
That’s what BYU will need for the rest of its aggressive nonconference schedule — and heading into conference play.