Editor’s note: This story was published prior to the Cougars’ game at Pepperdine being postponed on Wednesday, due to a COVID-19 positive result within the Waves’ program.
MALIBU, Calif. — New Year’s Eve is a time for both reflection and fresh starts.
So it’s fitting that BYU opens West Coast Conference play at Pepperdine Thursday (5 p.m., MST, ESPN2) on Dec. 31 near the picturesque beaches, ocean breezes and swaying palm trees.
The Cougars’ final regular-season game — and final win of the 2018-19 season — happened here on Feb. 29.
That day in front of a packed Firestone Fieldhouse, including throngs of BYU fans, Yoeli Childs scored a career-high 38 points on 17 of 27 shooting and collected 14 rebounds in an 81-64 victory.
With the win, the Cougars clinched the No. 2 seed in the WCC tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
After postgame interviews with reporters, Childs stuck out his hand as he customarily does in those settings but then quickly pulled back his hand and instead offered an elbow bump.
“We gotta be careful of the virus,” he said.
A couple of weeks later, the NCAA tournament would be shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ten months later, the pandemic rages on.
Much has happened since last February but BYU has been fortunate enough to play 11 non-conference games before tipping off WCC play against the Waves.
The Cougars (9-2), who have won four straight contests, are hoping to continue winning, challenge perennial league favorite and No. 1 ranked Gonzaga, and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament in March.
“We know ourselves so much better than we did 11 games ago. I don’t know if I’ve ever learned as much about a team in the nonconference as I have about these guys,” said coach Mark Pope. “We still have so much more to learn and so much more to go but it’s been a barrage of information, really dynamic, changing every game. I’m really proud of the progress we’ve made. We know each other way better. If we can keep going that direction, we do have a chance to be a really terrific team by the end of the season.”
Senior guard Alex Barcello is leading the way for the Cougars this season, averaging a team-high 16.9 points and 4.8 assists. He’s shooting a 63% from 3-point range, which is No. 1 in the nation among players who have shot 40 or more 3s.
Barcello has come a long way since the last time he walked out of Firestone Fieldhouse almost one year ago. In that game at Pepperdine, Barcello broke his left wrist. That injury was not reported at the time and few were aware of it.
Instead of undergoing surgery right away and sitting out for six weeks, Barcello decided to play in the WCC tournament, where the Cougars fell to Saint Mary’s, 51-50, in the semifinals.
Barcello’s injury against Pepperdine occurred with just a few minutes remaining in the game. After stealing a pass, he raced to the basket and was fouled so hard that he landed on his head and wrist.
His teammate, Jake Toolson, rushed from his seat on the bench and onto the court to check on Barcello. Toolson was ejected from the game.
Trainer Rob Ramos diagnosed the injury as a serious wrist sprain initially but when Barcello’s wrist swelled up the next day, X-rays revealed the bone was broken.
But Barcello decided to play anyway and his wrist was wrapped up for the Saint Mary’s game. In 32 minutes, he went 1 of 2 from the 3-point line and finished with three points, two assists and one rebound in the loss.
“I could still dribble and pass with it but it was definitely painful,” Barcello said last spring. “I obviously didn’t shoot a lot in that game. I played fine. It was painful but I could still push through and use it. It was a pain I had to push through.”
Now, Barcello is inflicting pain on opponents with his spectacular play. And as the Cougars enter a new WCC season, Barcello is pleased with the way his team is playing and is optimistic about what it can achieve.
“We’re 9-2 right now,” he said. “I’m so happy for these guys, the ceiling that we have and how much we have to learn.”
Pepperdine posted a 4-5 record in the preseason, having lost to CSU Bakersfield 79-51 in its most recent game. The Waves have also lost to UCLA, in triple overtime, and San Diego State, 65-60.
Pepperdine boasts two stars in guard Colbey Ross, who’s averaging 19 points and 8.2 assists. Ross, who is on the Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy watch lists, is the Waves’ all-time assist leader and all-time scoring leader.
Forward Kessler Edwards averages 17.2 points per game and leads Pepperdine in rebounds and blocks.
Just as BYU closed out the 2019-20 regular season with a win at Firestone Fieldhouse, it is looking for a similar result to start the 2020-21 WCC schedule.
Cougars on the air
BYU (9-2, 0-0) at Pepperdine (4-5, 0-0)
Thursday, 5 p.m. MST
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM