LAS VEGAS — BYU’s final game ever in the West Coast Conference tournament was a wild one.

The Cougars fell behind by 26 points early in the second half to top-seed Saint Mary’s, rallied furiously over the next 15 minutes to pull to within three points in the final 30 seconds, and ultimately lost 76-69 to the Gaels at Orleans Arena.

Amazingly, BYU shot 64% and scored 49 points in the second half. But the Cougars (19-15) dug themselves too big of a hole and couldn’t complete the comeback.

So now it’s official — BYU never won a WCC regular season championship or a WCC tournament title during its 12 years in the league. 

While the Gaels advanced to the WCC tournament title game against Gonzaga Tuesday night, what’s next for the Cougars? 

As of Tuesday morning, BYU had an NCAA NET ranking of 84, which puts it on the outer fringe of the NIT bubble. Last year, the Cougars advanced to the NIT quarterfinals before losing at home to Washington State.

Prior to Monday’s BYU-Saint Mary’s game, thebarkingcrow.com, which tracks NIT projections, opined: “BYU we think does have a chance … they have to beat Saint Mary’s, ideally by a lot, and then lose to Gonzaga and hope for very few NIT automatic bids and a committee that looks kindly on how good teams are and unkindly on what they’ve done.”

Interestingly, for the first time, the NIT’s Final Four will be played at Orleans Arena this season instead of the traditional Madison Square Garden site. 

Since an NIT bid is probably not happening, would the Cougars consider playing in another tournament, like the CBI? With such a young team, perhaps getting more games, anywhere, could be beneficial for the program.

However, the last time BYU failed to qualify for either the NCAA tournament or the NIT, in 2019, athletic director Tom Holmoe explained the school’s stance about the postseason. 

“The primary focus of the BYU basketball programs is to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, or as a secondary option the National Invitation Tournament,” he said. “With that in mind, we have determined that our men’s basketball team will not participate in the other postseason events this year.”

At that time, the Cougars were coming off a humbling 80-57 loss to San Diego in the WCC tournament in what turned out to be the final game for coach Dave Rose. BYU finished the 2019 season with a 19-13 record. 

The CBI selects 16 teams that are willing to pay a $27,500 entry fee to participate. It seems unlikely that BYU would do that.

When asked after the loss to Saint Mary’s whether his team would play in a tournament outside the NIT, coach Mark Pope said he wasn’t thinking about such matters in the aftermath of such an emotional game. 

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How BYU dug a hole against Saint Mary’s, then staged a remarkable rally, only to fall short
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The Cougars posted a losing conference record in the regular season and finished in a tie for fifth place in their final season in the WCC. BYU was thrilled to reach the semifinals of the WCC tournament but it couldn’t knock off Saint Mary’s. 

So if the 2022-23 season is over, and the final chapter has been written about BYU’s time in the WCC, what’s next?

The Big 12.

This summer, the Cougars are set to join college basketball’s top conference, which features in this week’s Associated Press poll No. 3 Kansas, No. 7 Texas, No. 10 Baylor, No. 12 Kansas State, and No. 22 TCU.  

Clearly, BYU has to do a lot of improving, and a lot of upgrading, to meet the challenge ahead in the Big 12. 

“We’ve got to keep growing. We have a really young nucleus that’s really special,” Pope said. “The young guys have grown immensely. I can’t wait to get back to work.”

BYU players exit the court at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas for the final time as members of the WCC following their semifinal defeat to Saint Mary’s Monday, March 6, 2023. | Nate Edwards, BYU Photo