Twenty games into the season, and with 10 regular-season games remaining on the schedule, BYU has 16 wins, including four in the West Coast Conference.
Cougars on the air
Portland (10-8, 1-2)
at BYU (16-4, 4-1)
Saturday, 7 p.m. MST
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
The Cougars hold sole possession of second place in the league standings, and sit just two spots outside of The Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Who would have guessed that they would be in this position after losing both Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter early in the season?
Certainly, BYU has overachieved to this point, considering the unexpected personnel losses it has endured. The Cougars are projected as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they have a 2-1 record in Quad 1 games, and a 6-3 mark in Quad 2 games.
“It’s super-exciting times. I’m so happy for these guys because they’ve earned the right that every game is massive. Every game is massive … every single one matters,” said coach Mark Pope. “We’ve been really blessed the last three years. Alex (Barcello) has been through this where if you’re really good, every single game is so huge.
“There’s so much pressure on every single possession of every single game. That’s how we feel right now. It’s pretty great. These games are taking us on a fun ride.”
“This Portland team is really good, they have some size, and they shoot the ball. There’s no nights off in this league right now.” — BYU coach Mark Pope
BYU, winners of six of its last seven contests and 11 straight at the Marriott Center, hosts Portland Saturday (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv).
At halftime, BYU is honoring the 1981 team. The ’81 Cougars, led by consensus All-American Danny Ainge, reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament — the only time that’s happened in school history.
Meanwhile, four WCC teams are projected to be invited to this year’s NCAA Tournament. Those four teams — Gonzaga, BYU, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco — are all ranked in the top 50 of the NCAA’s NET rankings.
“The league’s good,” Pope said. “Saturday is going to be a battle.”
On Thursday, BYU downed San Diego 79-71 in an emotional, physical game at the Marriott Center.
Barcello scored a game-high 22 points against the Toreros and freshman Fousseyni Traore recorded a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Seneca Knight came off the bench for the Cougars and scored 14 points, tying a season-high, including eight straight in the first half.
Knight, who played at San Jose State before transferring to LSU and then to BYU, has been trying to embrace his role with the Cougars.
“He’s done an unbelievable job. He’s in a new situation. He’s on a top-25 team right now. Everything that matters is different. The attention to detail is different. The focus on how we play together is different. Winning is what matters most,” Pope said of Knight. “That’s actually a learning process.
“You don’t just walk into a program like we have. You have to learn how to act, you have to learn how to carry yourself, you have to learn how to learn what’s important and not important. To Seneca’s credit, he’s been trying to learn what all that means. We got to see some of that (Thursday). Super proud of him.”
Barcello was also pleased with Knight’s contributions.
“He just continues to battle and battle. You know he wants it. That’s why he’s so fun to play with. These guys trust him,” he said. “He had the game he had (Thursday) because he’s bought in that not every day is going to be perfect, not every day is going to be great. But there’s going to be a breakout where he’s going to see some light and then he can keep capitalizing on that. I thought he did really great, seeing him have fun.”
BYU was supposed to tip off the WCC season at Portland on New Year’s Day, but that game was postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the Pilots program.
Pope said this week that game could be rescheduled at a later date.
Portland (10-8, 1-2,) under first-year coach Shantay Legans, is coming off a 70-58 loss at Loyola Marymount last Monday.
The Pilots are No. 1 nationally in free-throw percentage, shooting 81.6%, and redshirt sophomore Chris Austin averages a team-best 14.7 points per game.
“This Portland team is really good, they have some size, and they shoot the ball,” Pope said. “There’s no nights off in this league right now.”
And, as Pope says, every game is “massive.”