Commentary: NCAA snub the last straw as BYU prepares to join league made of bricks
Despite riding a 17-game win streak and being co-champs of the WCC conference, BYU softball team left on the outside looking in at NCAA Tournament
We all know what happened to the two little pigs who built their homes out of sticks and straw. The big, bad wolf huffed and puffed and, well … ended their seasons.
The third pig, bolstered by a house of bricks, was put in a better position for success when the outside threat came calling.
After BYU softball watched its season end prematurely at the hands of the NCAA Selection Committee, the only solace available is knowing admittance into the Big 12, or a house of bricks, is on its way.
While the WCC and football independence has served a valiant purpose for the Cougars, July 1, 2023, can’t get here soon enough for softball coach Gordon Eakin or his BYU colleagues.
BYU’s weekend snub was the last straw — at least for the 2021-22 sports year.
When Violet Zavodnik and the Cougars defeated Saint Mary’s on Saturday, they not only extended the program’s longest winning streak to 17 games and finished the regular season with the programs best record (42-10), but they also claimed their 13th straight conference championship.
If reputation is even slightly considered as a bonus to make the case for an at-large invitation, BYU was sitting pretty. In addition, the Cougars went 6-3 against Power Five teams with all three defeats to nationally ranked programs — No. 13 Oregon, No. 17 Tennessee and No. 23 Arizona State.
What BYU couldn’t overcome is the league it plays in, which left the Cougars with an RPI of 52 and out of the tournament. The WCC, with the exception of co-champion LMU, is a marshmallow softball league — as soft as they come. Or at least, that’s how the selection committee sees it and they had no problem roasting it at the end of the season.
In reality, BYU could have closed up shop after LMU beat them 1-0 on April 9, the opening weekend of league competition. That game was used on Saturday as the tiebreaker to determine the conference champion.
The Lions, 36-15, were admitted into the tournament with the league’s automatic bid while the Cougars, 42-10, with P5 wins over Cal, Rutgers and tourney-bound Stanford, were left out for the first time in 16 years.
BYU had enough wins to get in. The problem is too many of those wins were in the WCC. For the Cougars, it’s like watching the same ending to a sad movie over and over again.
Fresh off BYU’s first-ever 18-0 run through the WCC, the women’s volleyball team, ranked as high as No. 5, were branded as a No. 11 seed for the NCAA Tournament — the same as the year before.
The only loss during the 2021 regular season was a Sept. 10 defeat at No. 3 Pittsburgh. The Cougars responded by winning the next 23 matches.
They deserved a better seed, but the WCC, a nice volleyball league, couldn’t give them any kind of a boost. To BYU’s credit, they marched into the Sweet 16, where No. 6 Purdue beat them on Pittsburgh’s home floor.
BYU (30-2) finished the season ranked No. 9. The Cougars had the most wins with the fewest losses of all but one (Louisville) of the 340 NCAA women’s volleyball teams and yet, coming out of the WCC, the best the NCAA could give them was an 11 seed.
Jeff Judkins’ women’s basketball team finished 26-4, including a 15-1 record and regular-season champions in the WCC. BYU finished 14-0 at home and 5-1 against P5 programs, with top-25 wins against Florida State and West Virginia on the road.
Despite their success, the Cougars couldn’t get any higher than No. 16 in the national polls. Granted, 16 was the highest ranking in program history, but the ceiling that blocked them from climbing higher was the lack of schedule strength in the WCC.
After dropping the conference tournament final to Gonzaga, another NCAA tournament team, the selection committee put BYU as a disappointing six seed and sent them to the Michigan quadrant, where the No. 3-seeded Wolverines would have home-court advantage.
BYU struggled and lost to 11-seed Villanova and made a quick exit in the first round.
After reaching a No. 13 national ranking last November, Mark Pope’s Cougars appeared to be on their way to a second appearance in the Big Dance in just his third season as head coach. COVID-19 canceled the 2020 tournament.
Pope put together a preseason schedule that he believed would bolster BYU’s chances. However, after struggling to a fifth-place finish in the WCC and losing in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, the Cougars were left on the NCAA Tournament bubble and sent to the NIT.
“We played a top-30 toughest schedule in the country,” Pope told the Deseret News after BYU’s loss to San Francisco at the WCC tournament. “I think there’s four teams ranked ahead of us that have played a tougher schedule in the nonconference. That matters or it doesn’t.”
It mattered to Pope, but not to the selection committee. The WCC, while better than in previous years, wasn’t strong enough to pick BYU back up after it fell down during league play.
The WCC doesn’t participate in football, but BYU’s run as an Independent requires the same near perfection to make its national case. The Cougars finished last season 10-3 with a 6-1 record against P5 programs.
Living outside a P5 conference and their respective bowl games, however, relegated BYU to the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Zach Wilson’s magical 2020 season was also impacted by a weak schedule and limited access to a big bowl game. The No. 8 Cougars even scheduled a road game against No. 14 Coastal Carolina on Dec. 5 and played them on three days’ notice to try and bolster their position for a New Year’s Six bowl game.
In the end, BYU fell one yard short when Dax Milne was tackled at the goal line as time expired in a 22-17 defeat. The Cougars went on to win the Boca Raton Bowl and finish 11-1. The last major bowl game BYU has played in was the 1997 Cotton Bowl Classic against future Big-12 foe Kansas State.
House of bricks
Independence, like the WCC, has provided BYU with a nice home constructed of sticks and hay in a mostly friendly neighborhood. But, with soccer as an exception, when the big bad wolf (NCAA selection or bowl committees) huffs and puffs at its credibility, the house crumbles and the occupants are left scrambling to stay alive in relevance.
Fortunately, help is on the way.
The Big 12 is a house made of bricks. The Cougars will find safety there. They will also find the competition level is higher at every level. Big 12 football sent seven teams to bowl games last season, including the Sugar Bowl. Men’s basketball sent six teams to the Big Dance and won the championship. Women’s basketball also sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament. Women’s volleyball sent seven teams. Softball is sending three teams to this week’s tournament.
While it will be difficult in the Big 12 for BYU football to finish 10-3, basketball 24-11, women’s basketball 26-4, women’s volleyball 30-2, softball 42-10 or women’s soccer 17-4-3 (national runner-up), the reality is, they won’t have to. Perfection won’t be required in a league strong enough to handle defeats.
The 1-0 loss six weeks ago that kept BYU softball out of the NCAA Tournament, despite the 17-game winning streak that followed, will no longer be too much to overcome. In fact, a Big 12 team that finishes the season 42-10 and on a 17-game winning streak will be ranked among the top 10 — just as No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 7 Oklahoma State are today.
BYU has one more full year of competition as an independent in football and as a member of the WCC in the other sports. It is quite possible that the various NCAA selection committees will bring more disappointment as the Cougars remain vulnerable in their non-P5 status.
But their homes of sticks and straw are now temporary. BYU can see the house made of bricks that is waiting for them just down the road. Once inside, the Cougars will finally be in a place where the winning won’t be easy, but at least it will matter. A place where outside voices can huff and puff all they want, but won’t be able to blow the house in and end a season prematurely.
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.