LAS VEGAS — History will be made Friday night when Matt Foley opens his microphone at the Orleans Arena and welcomes the BYU Cougars to the competition.
Foley has been the public address announcer at the league tournament since BYU first arrived in March 2012, and the Cougars, 21-9 (9-6 in West Coast Conference play), have never taken the floor on a Friday night — until now.
BYU has made five Saturday appearances over the last 10 years. Their 2022 aspirations were much higher than the No. 5 seed that they rightfully earned. However, for the WCC, the league couldn’t be happier to see the Cougars in such uncharted water.
“It speaks to the strength of the league to have them playing on Friday,” said WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez. “If they advance and face USF on Saturday, that’s a neutral floor Quad-1 game. What a statement that is about this league to have that kind of a game in the quarterfinals.”
BYU will face the winner of Thursday’s LMU-Pacific game Friday night at 7 on BYUtv.
Win and get in, Friday?
In the eyes of the WCC’s analytics guru, Friday’s game, not Saturday’s, is the one the Cougars need to win to make the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s a win and get in game for BYU,” said Aaron Woliczko, WCC senior associate commissioner over men’s basketball. “People will fight the metrics, but believe me, if they win Friday they are in.”
Woliczko spoke with the selection committee Wednesday. His job is to convince them the WCC should receive four invites this year, including No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 19 Saint Mary’s, San Francisco and BYU. It was an easy argument to make until the Cougars lost four straight games midway through the conference season, including a crushing 76-73 loss at Pacific.
Woliczko believes wins over Oregon (81-49) and San Diego State (66-60), with 6-foot-9 senior Gavin Baxter healthy, will bring forgiveness for the setback in Stockton when Baxter and 6-11 senior Richard Harward were both out with season-ending injuries.
“BYU went out and scheduled appropriately in the nonconference and then they went out and earned victories,” he said. “The selection committee has said November-December games are just as important as January-February games. If that holds true, the WCC should get four teams in and if BYU wins Friday, I think we will.”
Elimination or acceleration
The popular narrative among national pundits is that the possible BYU-USF matchup on Saturday (should BYU win Friday) is an elimination game for the Big Dance. Both teams split during the regular season. That is a notion Nevarez scoffs at.
“That will be an acceleration game, not an elimination game,” she said. “If it happens, it will propel both teams into the tournament.”
To even have a shot, the Cougars must win Friday.
The WCC looks to the NET rankings as the gold standard for the selection committee. As of Thursday, San Francisco’s NET is 37. BYU is 53. The winner of the potential Cougars-Dons game would face Gonzaga in Monday’s semifinals, where a win would be tremendous, but a loss really wouldn’t hurt either team. The Bulldogs’ NET is 1.
One more year
BYU’s 11-year run in the WCC will end July 1, 2023, when the Cougars join the Big 12. While they have not been able to steal the show away from Gonzaga in Las Vegas (0-4 in WCC championship games), they certainly have left their mark on the rest of the league in almost every other sport.
The Cougars are closing in on their ninth straight Commissioner’s Cup, which is awarded to the school with the best performance in all sports.
“Across the board BYU has helped lift the conference,” Nevarez said. “I couldn’t be more thrilled for BYU as they move on. I told (Big 12) commissioner Bob Bowlsby that he couldn’t ask for a better league partner.”
With Cougars football functioning as an independent, BYU and the WCC have forged a partnership that gave Cougars sports, except for men’s volleyball, a home.
“When I think of what BYU has brought to this league, I think of the avid following of fans and BYUtv,” she said. “It’s been like having our own production partner at the ‘friends and family’ rate.”
The lonely number
When Three Dog Night belted out the song “One is the Loneliest Number” the group had no idea it was singing about BYU’s lack of tournament success in Las Vegas. While the Cougars have hit the jackpot here with football, basketball has often left them feeling out of luck and bankrupt.
Behind 30 points from Mekeli Wesley, BYU defeated New Mexico 69-65 at the Thomas and Mack Center on March 10, 2001, to win the MWC Tournament.
The achievement, under head coach Steve Cleveland, stands as the last time the Cougars won a conference tournament and the automatic bid to the Big Dance. Twenty-two years later that isn’t expected to change — not with Gonzaga lurking.
The quest for BYU, according to the WCC, is just get to Saturday night and everything will be fine.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.