There is power in freshness. Fresh food and fresh air are good for mental and physical health. Fresh ideas are good for business — and fresh starts are perfect for two BYU basketball teams that arrive in Las Vegas with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Never mind the combined 16-18 conference record and seedings that have both teams playing earlier in the week than they had hoped. That’s old news. What matters is the two squads will start their respective West Coast Conference tournaments with clean slates and the same goals as everyone else — win and advance. The teams that keep doing that through next Tuesday will go to the NCAA Tournament.
For the second consecutive year, the BYU men will be a No. 5 seed and play Friday night against the Portland/Pacific winner (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv). The BYU women also open tournament play Friday as a No. 5 seed against the Santa Clara/Pepperdine winner (1 p.m., BYUtv). Both squads are long shots to win the championship, but Las Vegas is an appropriate place to beat the odds, and this is the week where a season of wrongs can be made right.
Welcome to March — the birthplace of new beginnings.
Saturday’s 87-61 win against San Francisco in BYU’s final regular-season game as a member of the WCC, not only kept the Cougars off Thursday’s opening night docket, but also reminded them of their capabilities.
When coach Mark Pope has his guys focused, the Cougars can outrebound a bigger opponent (42-22), they can take care of the ball against quick, experienced guards (10 turnovers), and they can hit free throws when it matters (18 of 20) — all key ingredients in a recipe for success.
Beating the Dons like they did should also help their psyche. Instead of bringing a five-game losing streak into Vegas, the Cougars will arrive on the heels of a victory and a track record of going toe-to-toe in all four games against top seeds Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga.
This makes BYU dangerous, so long as the Cougars pack some consistency. The lack of it is reflected in a disappointing 17-14 (7-9) season. But this is no longer a three-month contest of 16 conference games — it’s a four-day journey.
While seeded either two or three through the first 10 years in the WCC, a tournament title has remained elusive. The Cougars have made it to the finals four times, only to fall to Gonzaga on each occasion.
Last year, as a No. 5 seed, BYU defeated LMU 85-60 in the second round before losing to San Francisco 75-63 in the quarterfinals.
This year’s road is clear. The Cougars will face the Pacific/Portland winner Friday. They are a combined 3-0 against the Tigers and Pilots. If BYU advances, it will play Loyola-Marymount on Saturday, a team the Cougars beat by 29 points in their last meeting on Feb. 2 in Provo.
Should the Cougars get to Monday’s semifinal, they’ll face Saint Mary’s. The Gaels swept the Cougars by a combined seven points, including a game-winning shot as time expired. BYU isn’t afraid of Saint Mary’s, but they will be facing an additional challenge of taking on a good team that will be riding on nine days’ rest.
Provided BYU makes it to Tuesday, the Cougars could get one final shot against Gonzaga, a team that has frustrated the Cougars since BYU’s first WCC tournament in 2012. The Zags may be 6-0 against BYU at the Orleans Arena, but they know in both meetings this season, they had to fight like crazy to escape with wins by a combined eight points.
Is it possible? Could BYU pull it off? Of course. It’s March in Las Vegas.
Last spring, BYU head coach Amber Whiting was busy coaching Burley High to the Idaho state championship. In her first season as a Division I head coach, she will bring her Cougars into the WCC tournament with one returning starter from last year’s team that featured the winningest coach in BYU history, Jeff Judkins, a 25-2 record and the No. 1 seed.
With Judkins, Shaylee Gonzales, Paisley Harding, Sara Hamson, Tegan Graham and Maria Albiero all gone, Whiting circled her team around Lauren Gustin, the nation’s No. 1 rebounder, and scratched out a 14-15 (9-9) record.
Las Vegas has been good for the BYU women. The Cougars are 15-8 in the WCC tournament and have reached the finals in seven of 11 seasons, winning the title in 2012, 2015 and 2019. Two of their defeats in championship games were by a combined three points, including a 43-42 buzzer-beater last year against Gonzaga.
This year’s journey will include potential second and quarterfinal games against teams BYU split with during the regular season — Pepperdine, Santa Clara and San Francisco. If the Cougars can get to Monday’s semifinals, they will face No. 2 seed Portland, a team they went toe-to-toe with Monday before the Pilots prevailed 61-49 in the regular-season finale.
A win over Portland would likely put BYU up against No. 1 seed Gonzaga for the final time as temporary, but spirited, WCC rivals.
The pursuit of a title won’t be easy, but is it possible? Of course. It’s March in Las Vegas.
The last blast
Friday begins BYU’s last blast in the WCC tournament. Next year at this time, the men’s and women’s teams will be in Kansas City making their debuts in the Big 12 tournament. For the Cougars, it will be another fresh start that will require fresh ideas and a refreshed pair or rosters.
But for this week, the two teams take their games into Las Vegas with a puncher’s chance to beat down a season of disappointments and deliver the kind of knockout that is only possible by bringing their best effort to each individual fight.
March, in all its maddening glory, is the birthplace of new beginnings for every team in college basketball — including BYU. When the opening bell rings Friday, and if the Cougars are ready to rumble, they can be a pair of very dangerous teams — playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Welcome to March in Las Vegas, where anything is possible.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.