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‘A few bounces away’: Lessons learned and silver linings. Why NCAA tourney experience was a defining moment for BYU

As it turned out, the Cougars’ final two losses of the season came at the hands of Gonzaga and UCLA, two teams that met in the Final Four

BYU forward Matt Haarms goes up for the tipoff with UCLA forward Cody Riley during NCAA Tournament game at Hinkle Fieldhouse.
BYU forward Matt Haarms goes up for the tipoff with UCLA forward Cody Riley during first-round game in the NCAA Tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021.
AJ Mast, Associated Press

A year after missing out on the NCAA Tournament due to the pandemic, the BYU basketball program earned a No. 6 seed in 2021, marking the Cougars’ first Big Dance appearance in six years.

It was also Mark Pope’s first coaching experience in the Big Dance as a head coach.

For most of the players on the roster, it was their first shot at March Madness. In the end, the Cougars experienced a quick exit in Indianapolis — a first-round 73-62 setback to No. 11 seed UCLA, which ended up advancing to the Final Four.

But there were plenty of lessons learned for BYU during the process.

“It was our first time as a coaching staff together to be in the NCAA Tournament. If you get a six seed and have to prepare for two different teams — Michigan State and UCLA — when we found out who we were playing, we were preparing our team as much as we could,” said assistant coach Chris Burgess.

“At the end of the day, you wish you could do things a little differently, whether it’s guarding defensively or attacking offensively, but we ran into a Final Four team,” he continued. “It makes you think as a team, ‘We’re close.’ UCLA is a Final Four team but we’re right there.

“During the season, we played three teams in the Elite Eight. We’re a few points away from the goal that we as a program have, which is a Final Four. There’s definitely a lot to take from it, both positive and learning experiences. We hope that next time we’re in the tournament as a staff, we’ll be able to apply that so we can be better prepared as a team and as a staff.

“We still want to get a single-digit seed. We still want to be in the tournament, either as an automatic qualifier or an at-large qualifier. We know we can grow from the experience we had in Indianapolis against UCLA, a Final Four team.”

Assistant coach Cody Fueger said the Cougars ran into a red-hot Bruins squad.

“They were on fire. They almost beat Gonzaga, too. They almost went to the championship game,” he said. “What gets us excited is, three of the four teams that were in the Final Four, we’ve beaten the past two years — UCLA, Gonzaga and Houston. These guys feel like we can play with just about anybody right now. It’s getting our guys more hungry.”

Despite the disappointing ending, BYU guard Trevin Knell enjoyed the NCAA Tournament experience.

“It was like a dream come true. You grow up as a kid playing basketball and making brackets. Even when I was a kid, I was pretending that I was playing in the tournament,” he said. “It was a surreal feeling to walk into a hotel with all these March Madness logos and see all the teams there. To play on the ‘Hoosiers’ floor. We’re not done yet. We’re going to continue to work.

“Coach Pope, as soon as the season ended, he talked to us. He said, ‘This last year was tough. But get ready for this next year because we know where we want to go and how we want to do it,” he continued. “It’s something that’s going to take a lot more sacrifice.’ Next year, we’re not looking to get bounced out of the first round.”

Asked to elaborate on Pope’s message to his team after the season, Knell said, “This was coach Pope’s first year as a head coach (in the NCAA Tournament). Coach Pope and the rest of the team, we’re hungry for more. We definitely want to make a run. Coach Pope’s dream is to win a national championship. That’s our end goal every single season.”

Knell said he liked the way the Cougars handled adversity and improved during the season.

“It’s crazy how we went out. We gave it our all. We pride ourselves on working hard and sacrificing for the team,” he said. “We went through two-a-days together. It felt like we grew more as a team as the season went on. If you look at how much we grew from losing to USC (in December) to losing against Gonzaga and playing in the (West Coast Conference) championship, I felt like we started meshing well.

BYU forward Caleb Lohner battles for a rebound with UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., during NCAA Tournament game at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. Lohner, a freshman on last year’s team that made the NCAA tourney, is among those returning who gained valuable experience in Indy.
AJ Mast, Associated Press

“It’s a very sore feeling how we went out. But I know that we’ll continue to grow and we have some guys coming back that it’s going to be exciting to be able to play with them again. It was a different aspect with COVID and the regulations but we were able to stay together and we were really lucky.

“We took it seriously and we didn’t have to cancel a game or suspend any players because of COVID symptoms. We’re really grateful to our coaches and our trainers for helping us out that way. It was definitely a different season but it was super exciting. Who doesn’t love to go to the NCAA Tournament?”

As it turned out, BYU’s final two losses of the season came at the hands of Gonzaga and UCLA, two teams that met in the Final Four.

“We think about that game against UCLA all the time. It’s the one-and-out thing. You lose one and you’re done. You’ve got to come ready,” Fueger said. “You have to guard right from the start. It was a great experience for our guys up until the game.

“Going to the NCAA Tournament and having the experience of being there and getting a feel for what it’s like and what the games are like. It was obviously different than any other NCAA Tournament where you couldn’t leave your hotel room or your floors or your hotel at all. It was a good bonding experience for our team.”

This NCAA Tournament experience should benefit the program in years to come.

“UCLA had an amazing run in the tournament. They definitely had a lot of momentum going into the game. What I learned was, you go through the entire season and you have a ton of highs and some lows. You’ve always got to be ready,” Knell said. “You’ve always got to think that the next day is going to be the hardest game you’ve ever played.

“After this experience, that’s something we’re going to take into next year. Any team can go all the way. There’s no team that’s unbeatable. There are personal things you have to work on to be able to compete at this next level.

“We’ve talked to the coaches and we already have plans and goals for this next year that we’ve already started. We’re definitely going to be ready for next year. This experience was huge for us.”

The way Burgess sees it, there was a silver lining in BYU’s brief stay in the NCAA Tournament.

“When you win, it covers up some learning opportunities. As hard as it is to lose and fly home early and watch the tournament the next couple of weeks, you have to learn,” he said. “We have to learn as a staff and you have to learn as players. There are positive things to learn from it.

“We’re a few bounces away and a few adjustments away. If we can harness that moving forward and apply it the right way, I think this is going to make us a better staff in the tournament. We’re hungry to get back there and we’re dying to make a deep run in the tournament. We just are. We know we have to get better and we definitely will.”

The Cougars exceeded expectations by posting a 20-7 record. Burgess doesn’t want the way the season concluded to overshadow what his team accomplished.

“They did some record-setting things they did as a team during a pandemic that we’ve never seen before with college basketball,” he said. “We want to make sure our guys understand what they did and they should be proud about that.”