If 13 Big 12 basketball games to date have taught the surprising BYU Cougars anything, it is that no opponent can be chalked up as an easy win, especially on the road.

Take last Saturday’s game at last-place Oklahoma State, for instance. The Cowboys rose up and humbled the Cougars, 93-83.

“When you come down to this stretch of the season, every game is so massive. I love it. We get to go play Kansas State, instilled in me as the mecca of college basketball because of my mentor, coach (Mark) Fox. So it just has that juice to us.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

Also, no lead is safe, especially for a BYU team that prides itself on taking as many 3-pointers as possible and attacking as much as it can. Take the 72-66 win over Kansas State two weeks ago as an example.

BYU led by as many as 17 points with less than 10 minutes remaining, then needed Jaxson Robinson’s 3-pointer with 51 seconds remaining to hold off a late KSU rally led by Creighton transfer Arthur Kaluma.

BYU coach Mark Pope said he “actually loved the finish of that game,” because it could theoretically add confidence and show the Cougars what they need to do to finish off opponents. Since then, the Cougars downed UCF 90-88, lost to Oklahoma State and then dropped No. 11 Baylor 78-71 at the Marriott Center and have seemingly figured out how to play better down the stretch in what KSU coach Jerome Tang calls “the five to grind” — the final five minutes of games.

Tang and his Wildcats, who have lost three in a row and seven of their last eight, play host to No. 25 BYU (7-6, 19-7) Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum (noon MST), hoping to get back on track after starting Big 12 play winning four of their first five games.

The Wildcats (5-8, 15-11) are viewing the game as an opportunity for a nice little upset and to revive their fading NCAA Tournament hopes; the Cougars are looking at it as a chance to improve their standing in the conference standings, move two games ahead of .500 in league play for the first time, and maintain some momentum heading into Tuesday’s first-ever appearance at the famed Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, against the No. 9 Kansas.

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After BYU’s six-point win in Provo on Feb. 10, the even-keeled Tang casually mentioned that he knew his Wildcats would come back because BYU’s style of play allows teams to make comebacks. He wasn’t wrong, as the UCF game three days later proved.

If nothing else, the comeback showed the Wildcats they can play with the Cougars. Kaluma finished with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, while Cam Carter added 14 and Tylor Perry and David N’Guessan had nine apiece.

Those nine points were six short of Perry’s average, due to 1-of-9 shooting from 3-point range, so one can bet the Cats’ leading scorer has had BYU’s visit circled on his calendar.

That is one of the reasons Pope is calling Kansas State, with three of the top guards in the conference, “an incredibly, incredibly dangerous” team. Dai Dai Ames is another outstanding guard for KSU.

“It is funny, because you can play great basketball in this league and lose. And they have three of probably the most talented scorers in the league, and that is not an overstatement,” Pope said.

Tang said in his news conference Thursday that the Wildcats are “real close” to breaking through and that some team is going to get hot in late February, early March and make a run in postseason play, and it might as well be them.

“I believe we are a play or two away from being able to win (consistently),” Tang said.

As for the Cougars, they can’t afford to look past anybody, although they do own two Big 12 road wins — at UCF and at West Virginia.

“It is super fun, isn’t it? … Every game couldn’t be more epic,” Pope said. “When you come down to this stretch of the season, every game is so massive. I love it. We get to go play Kansas State, instilled in me as the Mecca of college basketball because of my mentor, coach (Mark) Fox. So it just has that juice to us. Then we get to go to Phog Allen, after playing Baylor (last Tuesday) Come on. It is big. It is all big. It is why we are here and it is super fun.”

All the pressure is seemingly on the Cougars, who have a lot of ground to lose, or gain, in their last five league games. Kansas State, meanwhile, can play more freely, with not a lot to lose at this point, but Tang doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

“We got a lot to play for, but I don’t want to put extra pressure on them or make it harder than it has to be,” he said. “Hopefully we all have a sense of urgency.”

Cougars on the air

No. 25 BYU (7-6, 19-7)
at Kansas State (5-8, 15-11)
Saturday, noon MST
Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan, Kansas
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

The overall series is tied 4-4, but BYU is 0-2 in Manhattan and will be making its first trip to the “Little Apple” since a 98-85 loss to the Lon Kruger-led Wildcats on Dec. 15, 1973.

Pope said BYU will see an entirely different team than the one that shot 43% at the Marriott Center and committed 16 turnovers.

“Every team in this league performs at a different level at home than they do on the road,” he said. “It is nice because you already have a cheat sheet (from two weeks ago) for the (rematch). You just don’t want to rely on it too much because it will feel different there, certainly.”

Friday, Pope was named one of 15 candidates for the 2024 Werner Ladder Naismith Men’s Coach of the Year Watch List. He’s got the Cougars first in the Big 12 in five different categories, most notably scoring offense (83.2 points per game). That’s the ninth-highest scoring average in a single season in program history.

BYU guard Dallin Hall passes the ball away from Kansas State guard Cam Carter during game Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Provo, Utah. | Isaac Hale, Associated Press