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Why this is the week BYU can start building its NCAA Tournament resume

The Cougars will face Pac-12 foe USC in the Roman Legends Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, the first of three games on tap for BYU this week

BYU center Matt Haarms (3) and the Cougars celebrate during a victory over Utah Valley University Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in the Marriott Center.
BYU Photo

With three wins in four days to open the 2020-21 basketball season last week, BYU is now looking at its toughest test so far Tuesday, followed by a crucial stretch of games — and a chance to build its NCAA tournament resume.

The Cougars take on USC Tuesday (12:30 p.m. MST, ESPN2) in the Roman Legends Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut in what’s being called “Bubbleville.”

Coach Mark Pope’s team beat Westminster, New Orleans and Utah Valley University last week. Are they ready for a trip across the country against strong competition?

“Well, we’re about to find out, aren’t we?” Pope said. “I’m super excited about it. The guys were so tired of practice, they said they didn’t want to practice anymore. We’re not practicing anymore. All we do is have games. And they get harder and harder and harder. We’re about to step into another level of challenge.”

BYU will be without forward Gavin Baxter, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last Friday. “That’s a huge loss for us,” Pope said.

But the Cougars will have 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms at full strength this week. Haarms missed the first two games due to an ankle injury. He made his BYU debut Saturday against UVU and scored 10 points and had one rebound and one block in limited minutes — 12.

Asked if Haarms’ minutes would be restricted against USC, Pope joked, “Matt’s going to be restricted to 40 minutes. If it goes into overtime, he’ll be restricted to more.”

“I’ll be 100% ready to go full time Tuesday against USC,” Haarms said.

Guard Trevin Knell is happy to have Haarms in the lineup.

“We have the best shot-blocker in the country,” he said. “He’s definitely going to change the game for us. We’re excited to have him 100% (this) week.”

BYU (3-0) faces a USC (2-0) team that beat California Baptist in overtime, 95-87, and Montana, 76-62, last week.

The Trojans boast a pair of five-star recruits — brothers Evan and Isaiah Mobley. Evan, a 7-foot freshman, leads the team in scoring, averaging 16 points per game, along with eight rebounds per game. His older brother, Isaiah, a 6-10 sophomore, leads the team in rebounding, averaging 11.5 rebounds per game, and 10 points per contest.

“I think it’s an awesome opportunity. USC is looked at as a very good team. It’s a very good program as well. They have some very talented players,” Haarms said. “The Mobleys are very talented, very long, very athletic. It will be a really good challenge for us. I think it’s going to be very tough for us defensively to play against a bunch of athletes that just want to run, that jump and are high-flyers.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us to really see how we stack up against a team of that caliber. We did it this week. We had some dogfights. But I think USC will easily be the most talented team we’ve played so far.”

After playing USC, the Cougars originally were scheduled to play the winner of a game against UConn and Vanderbilt Thursday. But Vandy pulled out of the trip to Uncasville due to COVID-19 issues.

USC will now face UConn Thursday, while BYU will play St. John’s on Wednesday (3 p.m., ESPN2).

After that, the Cougars’ schedule gets even more hectic.

BYU visits Utah State Saturday, then hosts Boise State (Dec. 9) and arch-rival Utah (Dec. 12). The following Friday, the Cougars are scheduled to travel to San Diego State (Dec. 18), entertain Texas Southern (Dec. 21), then meet Weber State (Dec. 23) at Vivint Arena.

Pope said the depth he has at his disposal will help his team deal with the compressed nonconference schedule.

“It helps that we have depth. It’s helping us deal with all these games,” Pope said. “You’ve witnessed how weird our rotations have been because we’re trying to figure it out a little bit, too. Every single guy through these first three games has been like, ‘I’m in. You want me for one minute? You want me for 35 minutes? I’m going to give you everything I have. I’ve been super proud of the team for that.”

Knell said he and his teammates have accepted their roles.

“We have a deep team,” he said. “That’s what makes this team so special.”

The Cougars should learn a lot more about themselves with some big tests this week.

“I’m super excited to go to Connecticut,” Knell said, “and see how we do.”

BYU (3-0) vs. USC (2-0)

Tuesday, 12:30 p.m. MST

Mohegan Sun Arena

Uncasville, Connecticut

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM