Mark Pope will take his No. 5-seeded squad to Las Vegas for the school’s final appearance in the WCC basketball tournament on Friday, and there’s plenty for the eternally optimistic Pope to prod his team about.

The Cougars have spent the season sliding into average at 17-14, 7-9 in the WCC.

They almost beat Gonzaga, almost beat Saint Mary’s, almost beat San Diego State and almost looked like a very good team ... until they didn’t.

This fifth-seed thing for the second-straight year is, well, embarrassing for a program that is blessed with the best practice and playing facilities in the WCC. By far.

Heck, they’ll have the biggest arena when they play in the Big 12 next year.

This last appearance for the affair in the Orleans Arena should weigh heavy on the minds and hearts of Pope, his staff and players. They should be better than this.

 But they are not.

For the first time in BYU’s 12-year history in the WCC, the Cougars didn’t get a player on the All-WCC first team. Spencer Johnson ranks third in the WCC in 3-point shooting (46.8%) and Fousseyni Traore is tied for third in the league in rebounding with eight a game.

No All-WCC first team guys?

Didn’t deserve it?

That should be a major slap in the face. It smacks of underachieving and being recognized and reminded of it the week of the tournament. 

BYU is like the team that rode to a fight in an expensive limo, got out of the ride and promptly got KO’d by someone that pulled up in a dented hippy van.

Pope told reporters that teams headed into the postseason should sense opportunity instead of pressure.

“I hope we never feel overwhelming pressure. I hope we feel a little salty and a lot of hunger,” Pope said.

“We believe we can go win. This is an incredible opportunity to go win.”

To paraphrase Pope’s built-in enthusiastic mantra, BYU will need to be super salty, play super hard, be super inspired and play, well, super.

Back on Feb. 4, it looked like Pope and Company had kind of turned the corner and found a groove after beating LMU and Pacific by a combined 22 points. 

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Then came four consecutive losses to Pepperdine, Gonzaga, Santa Clara and Saint Mary’s.  One could understand the challenge of playing the No. 1 and No. 2 teams and losing to the Gaels 71-65 and Zags 88-81. They were hard-fought affairs, very competitive. 

But the 81-74 home loss to Santa Clara was a head-scratcher. The Cougars looked disinterested, unenergetic and detached.

To the outsider, it looked pitiful. To insiders who know the ins and outs of what Pope has tried to do to keep players engaged, motivated and pushed in a positive direction, it may have made sense.

Certainly the dominating 87-61 win over San Francisco last Saturday on Senior Night, the final regular home game, showed Pope did something right. He pushed the correct buttons, pulled the right strings on his Jekyll and Hyde team.

Now comes Friday’s game against the winner of Pacific and Portland tonight. BYU is 3-0 against those two teams this season.

The thing about this postseason conference affair is most of the history, trends, successes and failures of weeks past don’t matter. A team that gets hot, sticks together and finds some inner drive and magic can make it to the championship game. In this case, it is next Tuesday.

Postseason play is traditionally triumphed by teams that have outstanding point guard play — facilitators that dish, score, get to the line and make big plays with the shot clock winding down. They do this when many other factors are checkmated by experience with one another, detailed game plans of well-scouted opponents and familiarity. 

While BYU really misses a go-to threat this season outside sophomore Traore, their chance could come down to senior point man Rudy Williams, who has been on a streak of late after coming off the bench for most of the year.

Williams struggled early with turnovers as did the entire team. But since having four against Pepperdine Feb. 14, he’s had four games with just one and three games with zero, including the last game against league-leader Saint Marys. He’s had 23 assists in the last nine games.

That’s a starting point for Pope and the Cougars in Las Vegas.  

So much with Pope’s team has appeared unsettled and inconsistent this year, but they have rebounded with the best in the league and are capable of playing defense. 

Cougars on the air


WCC Tournament

No. 5 BYU (17-14)
vs. No. 9 San Diego (11-19)
or No. 8 Portland (13-18) 
Friday, 7 p.m. MST
Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
TV: BYUtv
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

The Cougars lead the league in blocks with 121 and are No. 2 behind Gonzaga in steals.  Only Santa Clara had more rebounds per game than the Cougars.

Now, if Pope’s team could only score more consistently, he might have something.

BYU arrives in Vegas with plenty to prove. Pope’s team should be a little mad, if not extremely angry, that so much has simply slipped away from them week after week.

Making up is what March is all about in college basketball.

BYU’s forward Fousseyni Traore (45) chest bumps with teammate Rudi Williams (3)
BYU’s forward Fousseyni Traore, left, celebrates with teammate Rudi Williams during timeout as BYU and Utah play at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News