MORAGA, Calif. — Life on the NCAA Tournament bubble isn’t comfortable.
That’s where BYU finds itself heading into late February.
Cougars on the air
BYU (19-8, 7-5)
at Saint Mary’s (21-6, 9-3)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
University Credit Union Pavilion
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
The Cougars appeared to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament just a few weeks ago. But that was before a four-game losing streak.
Last weekend, they snapped that streak and swept their road trip, although they struggled defensively in close wins over Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine.
According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s NCAA Tournament projections, BYU is the dubious “First Team Out.”
That means the Cougars’ Big Dance hopes are precarious at best.
It also means that BYU’s showdown at Saint Mary’s Saturday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN2), is “a massive game,” according to coach Mark Pope.
A win against the Gaels, currently projected as a No. 8 seed by Lunardi, would be a tremendous boost to the Cougars’ at-large NCAA Tournament hopes and make life a little more comfortable.
“It’s not a death sentence for us if we don’t win this game but this is a massive game. We feel that way and I’m sure they feel that way. Let’s go. This is what you play for — the end of February and March. This is when it gets great.” — BYU coach Mark Pope
A loss would make BYU’s postseason prospects uncomfortable. Maybe even improbable.
Is this a must-win scenario for the Cougars (19-8, 7-5)?
“I don’t know if it’s a do-or-die. There’s so many things that have to work out. We could win this game and not get in. We could lose this game and find a way in,” Pope said. “The last three or four weeks of the season are so tumultuous, always. Everything changes.
“What this is for sure is another shot at a Quad 1 (win),” he continued. “We have a terrific record in number of wins in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games and this gives us a chance to try and go steal another one. That is huge for our resume — against a great team in a really tough environment.”
Saint Mary’s (21-6, 9-3) is undefeated at home, 13-0, this season. Wins have been hard to come by in Moraga for BYU. Last year, the Cougars beat the Gaels here for the first time since 2014, snapping a six-game losing streak at University Credit Union Pavilion.
Making it an even tougher task, BYU will likely be without injured forward Fousseyni Traore.
The Cougars defeated Saint Mary’s on Jan. 8 in Provo, 52-43, but they had Traore for that game (he scored nine points and grabbed 11 rebounds) and the Gaels are much-improved since then.
Saint Mary’s ranks No. 9 nationally in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 59.7 points per game.
“They’re playing elite-level basketball right now. They’re a top-10 defense in the country and they’re actually starting to make shots now, which makes them really, really dangerous,” Pope said. “They’re starting to look like Saint Mary’s from a couple of years ago where the ball pops around and guys bang 3s and make tough shots.
“They’re playing a little faster and a little bit more free and still hammering away on the defensive end in their gym, which has been such a tough place for us and everybody else. They’re a great team.”
Thursday night in Moraga, Saint Mary’s beat San Francisco 69-64, completing the season sweep of the Dons. Guard Tommy Kuhse scored a season-high 22 points.
“This one is going to be huge. I just try to go out there and handle business. I know that we played them once and we won,” BYU forward Seneca Knight said of Saint Mary’s. “I know it’s going to be a battle. They’ve been playing extremely well. Just try to take it in the moment and not look at anything after. We’ve got to handle the first thing first.”
After the Cougars defeated the Gaels last month, forward Caleb Lohner said, “Every time we play Saint Mary’s, it’s always weird. It’s a strange, slow-paced, technical, low-scoring game. Those games tell a lot about the character of a team. We played really hard and it showed.”
Lohner is expecting more of the same Saturday.
“We’re a really tough team and we’re going to continue to show that,” he said. “Saint Mary’s is a super physical team. We’re going to need everyone healthy to win that game. … It’s just a different style of play. The tougher team, the team that plays more together is going to come out on top.”
“This one is going to be huge. I just try to go out there and handle business.” — BYU forward Seneca Knight
BYU struggled both offensively and defensively during its four-game losing streak. Last weekend, the Cougars’ offense was efficient and explosive at times.
But BYU’s defensive performance was not good.
“We functioned at a higher level on the offensive end and we sprang some leaks on the defensive end,” Pope said. “Mostly, it was our togetherness and fighting for each other and our relentless effort to try to fix things. It was really special. It was an extraordinary thing to watch.
“There are a lot of teams that find their way out of a losing streak. I’m not sure there’s a lot of teams that do it down 17 in the second half on the road. For those guys to do it, is a credit to them.”
Pope knows that his team needs to have a complete game to beat Saint Mary’s.
“We were struggling offensively (during the losing streak). We were never great this year. We spent an inordinate amount of time on that last week and sure enough, we performed better,” he said. “We don’t perform as well on the defensive end. That’s what happens. You excel at what you focus on most of the time. We’re going to focus on the whole game this week and see if we can be good at the whole game at Saint Mary’s.”
BYU will need to match Saint Mary’s physicality and toughness.
“They don’t allow assists, which is what we feed off of. It’s always been a challenge for us playing them,” Pope said. “On the defensive end and on the glass, you have to be ridiculously physical and tough. I think our guys know what we’re in for. It’s just a matter of if we can raise up and do it.”
If the Cougars can do it and somehow pull off an upset at Saint Mary’s, it could certainly change their NCAA Tournament prospects.
“It’s important for us to show well. It just is. We’re at the point of the season where you’ve got to go win games,” Pope said. “It’s not a death sentence for us if we don’t win this game but this is a massive game. We feel that way and I’m sure they feel that way. Let’s go. This is what you play for — the end of February and March. This is when it gets great.”