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Saturday’s high noon showdown with Texas will reveal whether the Cougars are contenders or pretenders

Many college basketball observers are wondering if BYU is a fraud and unworthy of its lofty ranking

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BYU students try to disrupt Houston Cougars forward J’Wan Roberts as he shoots a free throw at the Marriott Center in Provo.

BYU students try to disrupt Houston Cougars forward J’Wan Roberts as he shoots a free throw at the Marriott Center in Provo on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. The Cougars face Texas Saturday at noon in Provo.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Spend any time listening to or reading the nation’s premier college basketball analysts, and one notion they have about the BYU Cougars becomes abundantly clear.

Very few, if any, believe the Cougars (14-5) are as good as the metrics and computers suggest they are. Some have even hinted that their 2-4 start in the Big 12 shows they are a fraud, even as they boast about the overall strength of the league.

“I think they probably feel like they are where they were supposed to be the whole season, but because of injury and newness it has taken them a minute to get it together. But they are playing incredible basketball. Like, really incredible. They are a super dangerous team.” — BYU coach Mark Pope on Texas

BYU is No. 5 in the NET rankings, the primary sorting tool the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses to evaluate teams, and No. 9 in Kenpom.com. Media members and coaches who participate in the two major polls also like the Cougars, but not as much.

BYU was No. 21 in The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 19 in the USA Today Sports Coaches Poll before it lost 75-68 to No. 4 Houston on Tuesday.

What can BYU do to reestablish its legitimacy? Beating unranked Texas on Saturday (noon, ESPN2) at the sold-out Marriott Center would certainly help.

“It is such a monumental game for BYU’s season,” former BYU star Jonathan Tavernari said on “BYU Sports Nation” Friday. “We are running out of time. Saturday’s game is absolutely monumental.”

With road games at West Virginia and Oklahoma up next, BYU is likely staring at a 2-7 league record if it can’t hold serve at home against a Texas team (3-3, 14-5) coming off back-to-back wins over No. 9 Baylor and No. 11 Oklahoma.

“It is huge, man,” BYU coach Mark Pope said Thursday.

They all are in the Big 12, but this one feels pivotal. It will either be a soul-crushing third-straight loss, or a confidence-building jolt into February.

The fifth-year coach isn’t apologizing for BYU’s lofty metrics, and admitted that he and his staff put together a nonconference schedule — they went 12-1 in those games — that would put them in the best place possible heading into Big 12 play.

“We pay a lot of attention to them because they are important,” Pope said. “Those analytics and conference standings go into (earning) opportunities to play in the postseason. They are very important to us. We probably dug more into trying to effectively position ourselves well with these algorithms (than ever before). We spend an enormous amount of time doing that. It is the criteria that is set forth before us.”

Texas is No. 44 in the NET rankings and No. 36 in Kenpom.com, but Pope and senior forward Noah Waterman said Thursday that the Longhorns are playing much better than that.

“I think they probably feel like they are where they were supposed to be the whole season, but because of injury and newness it has taken them a minute to get it together,” Pope said. “But they are playing incredible basketball. Like, really incredible. They are a super dangerous team.”

Added Waterman: “Texas is a really good team. They got one really good guard (senior Max Abmas, a transfer from Oral Roberts). He’s like one of the all-time leading scorers (in college basketball), can really shoot the lights out. They got a really good four man (Dylan Disu). They play as a team. It is going to be a tough matchup.”

Abmas averages 17.9 points and junior guard Tyrese Hunter averages 12.2, giving the Longhorns one of the best backcourts in the country. Sophomore forward Dillon Mitchell (10.8 points, 8.8 rebounds) and Disu (15.1 points) are also hard to guard.

“They demand that you guard a ton of space on the floor. They can play with incredible pace at times. They bring some physicality to the game. They are probably the most confident they have been at any time the entire season right now,” Pope said. “They are in the best rhythm they have been in maybe their entire season.”

BYU certainly isn’t, having lost four of its last six.

Will the Cougars leave January a contender or a pretender?

The schedule is supposed to get a bit easier in February, but one-third of the way through league play, the Cougars have learned that absolutely nothing comes easy in the Big 12.

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Cougars on the air


Texas (3-3, 14-5)
at No. 21 BYU (2-4, 14-5)
Saturday, noon MST
Marriott Center, Provo, Utah
TV: ESPN2
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

The conference leads the nation in ranked teams for the ninth straight week, and its seven ranked teams are more than double any other league. Of the 41 conference games played so far, 18 have been decided by five or fewer points.

“It is a dogfight every game. It comes down to who wins the offensive glass, defensive glass and who plays the best defense,” said Waterman, who led BYU with 17 points on 6 of 9 shooting in the Houston game. “It is really tough. People are out there going at your neck every day. … It is really fun, though. The competitive spirit, going into away games, with the crowds and everything. It has been a super fun atmosphere.”

BYU is 4-2 all-time against Texas, which will be playing in Provo for the first time since 1974.

BYU won the game played 50 years ago 80-72, and also beat the Longhorns 86-82 in Kansas City in 2013 when Tyler Haws hit a go-ahead shot in the final seconds.

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Texas forward Brock Cunningham (30) passes to guard Max Abmas (3) during the team’s game against UCF on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Austin, Texas. The Longhorns pay Provo a visit Saturday for a noon showdown vs. the No. 21-ranked Cougars.

Mikala Compton/Austin American-Statesman via Associated Press