LAS VEGAS — Two weeks ago, BYU had an opportunity to play a Quad 1 game at Saint Mary’s. And while the Cougars battled hard, they ultimately fell to the Gaels.
But now, No. 5-seeded BYU, sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble, has earned another chance to impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
The Cougars take on No. 4 San Francisco tonight’s (8:30 p.m., MST, ESPN2) in the West Coast Conference quarterfinals, in what will be a Quad 1 game for both teams.
The Dons (23-8) are ranked No. 26 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, while the Cougars (22-9) check in at No. 50.
According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, USF is projected as a No. 10 seed and one of the “Last Four Byes” in the NCAA Tournament, while BYU is among the “First Four Out.”
Saturday’s winner advances to Monday’s semifinals against top-ranked Gonzaga on ESPN.
Guard Alex Barcello, who scored 22 points in the Cougars’ 85-60 victory over Loyola Marymount Friday night, likes how his team is playing heading into tonight’s showdown with USF.
“It’s a huge opportunity. They’re a really good team,” he said. “But we have the same mindset every game right now. We’ve got to lay it out there every time we step on the floor.”
The Cougars know what is at stake. They’re trying to keep their at-large NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
“San Francisco is a great team. They’re a top-30 team. They’re huge. They’re just so big. They have a really skilled backcourt. They’re a terrific team,” said coach Mark Pope. “Right now, you have to have an unbelievable edge in every single game in the postseason. You’re playing at such a fevered pitch and so much desperation and then you get to March and somehow you’re expected to ramp it up from there. It seems impossible. But that’s what you have to do.”
BYU and San Francisco split the season series, with each team winning on the opposing team’s home floor.
The Cougars rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to defeat the Dons 71-69 at War Memorial Gym on Jan. 15.
On Feb. 3, USF beat BYU 73-59 at the Marriott Center.
In that game in Provo, all five of the Dons’ starters scored in double figures — Yauhen Massalski (16 points, 13 rebounds), Patrick Tape (10 points), Khalil Shabazz (15 points), Jamareee Bouyea (13 points) and Gabe Stefanini (15 points).
The Cougars made only 12 of 25 free throws that night.
USF also outrebounded BYU 45-37 as the Cougars struggled with the Dons’ size.
“It’s just a challenge. There’s no two ways about it. They’re really athletic, super vertical. They’re strong and powerful on their front line,” Pope said. “They’re big and explosive and veteran. They’re seniors. That’s just one of the many problems that they show.
“It’s going to be a team effort. We’re really good at figuring it out as a team. Caleb (Lohner) is going to have to be huge. It’s a big-time challenge on the glass. (Fousseyni Traore) will have to be big. Gideon George is going to have to make himself present on the boards.”
For BYU, one of the many positives that came out of Friday’s win over LMU was that Barcello played only 26 minutes and was able to get rest over the last six to seven minutes.
“Man, how great that we were able to keep Alex to 25 minutes and Te’Jon (Lucas) to 25 minutes. Then you see that Spencer (Johnson) played 30 minutes,” Pope said. “It’s such a gift to be able to leave him out there. He’s going to have to be big on the glass (Saturday). That’s one of the many issues we have tomorrow that we’re going to have to figure out. I believe in these guys. They’re in a good spot right now.”
Could the Cougars have an advantage because they just played a game, while USF’s tournament debut will be Saturday?
“I hope so. LMU would say no. But we hope that works in our favor,” Pope said. “In March, every game is its own freestanding life, its own season.”
Pope said that Seneca Knight, who is nursing a thumb injury and missed Friday’s game, is questionable for Saturday.
“He’s testing it every day to see how it is,” he said. “There’s a ton of pain involved. We’ll see. I believe in miracles.”
Speaking of injuries, Lucas, who was 2 of 9 from the field and finished with seven points and four assists against LMU, hasn’t been at full strength for quite a while.
“Te’Jon has more injuries right now than all of us combined in our old age. But he doesn’t care. He’s going to go fight,” Pope said. “He won’t say a word about it ever. He’s just so tough. We’re taping him together and he’s going out there and performing at a high level.”
BYU knows it will need to keep playing at a high level to beat USF — and keep its dreams of playing in the NCAA Tournament alive.
“We have to come back with more fight and fire than we’ve ever had (Saturday). If we make it through (Saturday), then the challenge is even bigger on Monday,” Pope said. “That’s what makes this so special. Our guys are in a good place right now. They’re super hungry and they’ve got some fire. They don’t have a lot of fear right now. They’re just hungry. I like where our team feels right now.”
No. 4 San Francisco (23-8)
vs. No. 5 BYU (22-9)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM