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Jimmermania, a Sunday-play bracket mistake, head-scratching seedings, dubious records — BYU’s NCAA Tournament history

The Cougars are set to play in their first NCAA Tournament in five years. Here’s a look at BYU’s colorful history in the Big Dance

SHARE Jimmermania, a Sunday-play bracket mistake, head-scratching seedings, dubious records — BYU’s NCAA Tournament history
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BYU’s Jimmer Fredette (32) tries to drive past Florida’s Kenny Boynton during the first half of the NCAA Southeast regional college basketball semifinal game Thursday, March 24, 2011, in New Orleans.

David J. Phillip, Associated Press

PROVO — When Selection Sunday rolls around this weekend, the BYU basketball program expects to be invited to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years. 

It’s been a long time coming for the Cougars, who went to six consecutive Big Dances and eight in nine years, from 2007-2015, before this five-year absence. It will be BYU’s 30th trip to the NCAAs.

Under first-year coach Mark Pope, and with a roster boasting seven seniors, BYU is ranked No. 14 in this week’s Associated Press poll, finished second in the West Coast Conference and has a signature upset of No. 2 Gonzaga on its NCAA Tournament resume.  

The Cougars fell 51-50 to another projected NCAA Tournament team, Saint Mary’s, in last Monday’s WCC Tournament semifinals. 

According to bracketmatrix.com, which tracks tournament projections, the Cougars are in all 145 mock brackets with an average seed of 5.3. If BYU receives a No. 5 seed, it will mark only the second time in 40 years that it has had a seed of No. 5 or better — a No. 4 seed in 1988 and a No. 3 seed in 2011.  

As former Cougar coach Dave Rose likes to say, “Everybody talks about the seed, but it’s the matchup that’s important.”

Rose knows what he’s talking about. He’s learned from experience.

Here’s a look at the Cougars colorful history in terms of seedings, matchups, records and other quirks in the NCAA Tournament in the modern era:  

Ainge and the Elite 8 (1981)

In the NCAA Tournament, BYU holds a dubious distinction.

The Cougars own the record for most NCAA Tournament appearances (29) without reaching the Final Four. 

The closest BYU has come over the last 40 years was in 1981, when, as a No. 6 seed in the East Region, it beat No. 11 Princeton and No. 3 UCLA in Providence to advance to the Sweet 16. 

Then, in the program’s most famous game, featuring the most iconic moment in Cougar basketball history, consensus National Player of the Year Danny Ainge drove the length of the court for a game-winning layup in the final seconds for a 51-50 victory over No. 2 Notre Dame in Atlanta.

Two days later, BYU’s season ended at the hands of No. 1 Virginia and its star 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson in the East Regional Finals, 74-60. The Cavaliers marched to their first Final Four appearance ever.

The Cougars are still waiting for their first one.

Birmingham Blues (1984, 1987, 1988)

For three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in the 1980s, BYU was assigned to the same place — Birmingham, Alabama — with mixed results.

In 1984, as a No. 8 seed, the Cougars defeated No. 9 University of Alabama at Birmingham before falling to No. 1 Kentucky, 93-68. It was during that visit to Birmingham that BYU’s coaching staff discovered Alabama native Jeff Chatman, who ended up becoming a four-year star for the Cougars. 

In 1987, No. 10 BYU fell to No. 7 New Orleans in Birmingham. 

And in 1988, the Cougars, a No. 4 seed, was sent to Birmingham again, where they beat No. 13 UNC-Charlotte 98-92 in overtime before losing to No. 5 Louisville, 97-76. 

Earlier during that 1988 campaign, BYU was ranked No. 2 in the country, its highest ranking ever, and had a 17-0 record, when it played a regular-season game in Birmingham, where it dropped a 102-83 decision to UAB, altering the course of the season. 

Block Parties (1991, 1992)

With 7-6 freshman star Shawn Bradley, BYU earned a No. 10 seed and faced No. 7 Virginia, which beat the Cougars 10 years earlier in the Elite 8.

In that matchup, Bradley set an NCAA Tournament record with 10 blocked shots, leading a Cougar second-half rally for a 61-48 victory at the home of archrival Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. BYU was eliminated two days later against No. 2 Arizona, in a game that turned out to be Bradley’s final game in a Cougar uniform. 

The following season, BYU was once again a No. 10 seed, though in 1992 the Cougars had a better record (25-6 compared to 21-13 in 1991). BYU’s first-round game was against No. 7 Louisiana State and star Shaquille O’Neal.

While Bradley was serving a mission in Australia, O’Neal broke Bradley’s NCAA record against Bradley’s former team — with 11 blocks — and recorded a triple-double, in a 94-83 win in Boise. 

A return to the tournament (2001)

In the 1990s, the BYU basketball program hit rock bottom, posting an abysmal 1-25 season in 1996-97. Midway through the ‘96 campaign, coach Roger Reid was fired and Tony Ingle was named the interim coach before the school hired Steve Cleveland. 

On Selection Sunday, March 11, 2001, four years to the day after his hiring was announced, Cleveland guided the Cougars back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. BYU earned the automatic bid after winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament — the last time the program has won a league tournament — and received a No. 12 seed. 

However, BYU’s stay in the tournament was short-lived, as it fell to No. 5 Cincinnati 84-59 in San Diego. 

Sunday-play bracket mistake (2003)

When it comes to scheduling games, the NCAA accommodates BYU — which doesn’t compete on Sundays due to school policy — with what is known as “The BYU Rule.”

The NCAA Tournament committee must ensure placing the Cougars in Thursday-Saturday brackets rather than Friday-Sunday brackets. 

But on Selection Sunday in 2003, the committee made an egregious oversight. Or a calculated gamble perhaps?

Not only did the committee give the 23-8 Cougars, which tied for the Mountain West Conference regular-season title, a head-scratching No. 12 seed against No. 5 UConn, but it also sent BYU to Spokane, assigned to the South Region — with the possibility of a Sunday game if the Cougars advanced to the region finals. 

When the mistake was discovered, generating waves of national attention, the plan was to keep BYU in its assigned bracket through the first two rounds. Had the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16, they would have been reassigned to the Midwest Region semifinals, which were scheduled for Thursday-Saturday.

As it turned out, BYU fell to UConn, 58-53. 

For the NCAA, it was crisis averted. For BYU, it was simply another first-round loss. 

Mac Attack (2004)

In 2004, BYU received a No. 12 seed for the third straight time, drawing No. 5 Syracuse, the defending national champions, and coach Jim Boeheim in the first round.

The Cougars played the Orangemen tough throughout, but they couldn’t cope with guard Gerry McNamara, who scored a career-high 43 points, including nine 3-pointers, in Syracuse’s 80-75 win in Denver.

Back-to-back vs. Texas A&M (2008, 2009)

In 2008, BYU won the Mountain West regular-season title and received a No. 8 seed and faced No. 9 Texas A&M in Anaheim. The Cougars missed their first shots and fell behind 11-0 in the game’s opening minutes before eventually falling 67-62 to the Aggies.

One year later, on Selection Sunday, BYU once again received a No. 8 seed and were assigned to play … No. 9 Texas A&M in Philadelphia. 

And once again, the Cougars lost to the Aggies, 79-66. 

As a result, the NCAA is more mindful of, and tries to avoid, repeating first-round tournament matchups from one year to the next.

First-round losing streak snapped (2010)

During Jimmer Fredette’s junior season, BYU earned a No. 7 seed, its most favorable seed since 1993. 

That was also the last time the Cougars had won a first-round game.

It was far from easy, but BYU beat No. 10 Florida 95-85 in double-overtime in Oklahoma City, marking the Cougars first opening-round win in 17 years. However, BYU’s run ended that weekend with an 84-72 setback against No. 2 Kansas State. 

Jimmermania and the Sweet 16 (2011)

It was setting up to be the most memorable basketball season in BYU basketball history. Fredette’s scoring onslaught, including bushels of deep 3-pointers, sparked Jimmermania, which was was sweeping the nation.

Days after BYU knocked off No. 6-ranked San Diego State and Kawhi Leonard on the road — ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had projected the Cougars as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — the school announced that starting center Brandon Davies had been suspended for the rest of the season for violating the honor code. 

That situation drew widespread national and international attention. 

As it turned out, BYU drew a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, tying its highest seeding ever (1980). 

Led by the consensus National Player of the Year, Fredette, and playing without Davies, the team’s leading rebounder, the Cougars beat No. 14 Wofford 74-66 and future West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga, a No. 11 seed, 89-67, in Denver. It marked BYU’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years. 

The Cougars’ run ended the following week in New Orleans, where they lost to No. 2 Floridain overtime, 83-74. 

It remains one of the biggest “what-if” questions in BYU sports history. What would have happened had Davies played with the Cougars in the 2011 NCAA Tournament? With Davies, BYU had a legitimate shot at not only the Final Four but also the national championship.

First Four, epic comebacks

BYU has never been to the Final Four, but it has a couple of First Fours in its history.

In 2012, a year after Fredette’s graduation, and BYU’s first season in the WCC, the No. 11 seeded Cougars were sent to Dayton for a First Four game against another No. 11 seed, Iona. 

BYU trailed by 25 points in the first half before it staged a furious rally, recording the largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history with a 78-72 victory. 

President Barack Obama attended the first game that night and watched Western Kentucky come back from a 16-point second-half deficit. But he left the building before the Cougars’ memorable second-half rally.

Three years later, the roles were reversed in the 2015 First Four in Dayton. No. 11 BYU squandered a 17-point halftime lead and lost to No. 11 Ole Miss 94-90 in the final game for the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer Tyler Haws. The Rebels shot 60% and scored 62 points in the second half. 

And that’s the last time BYU played in the NCAA Tournament. 

BYU NCAA Tournament history (since 1979)
Year BYU's seed Opponent Region Location Outcome
1979 No. 4 No. 5 San Francisco West Tucson, Ariz. L, 86-63
1980 No. 3 No. 6 Clemson West Ogden L, 71-66
1981 No. 6 No. 11 Princeton East Providence, R.I. W, 60-51
No. 3 UCLA East Providence, R.I. W, 78-55
No. 2 Notre Dame East Atlanta W, 51-50
No. 1 Virginia East Atlanta L, 74-60
1984 No. 8 No. 9 UAB Mideast Birmingham, Ala. W, 84-68
No. 1 Kentucky Mideast Birmingham, Ala. L, 93-68
1987 No. 10 No. 7 New Orleans Southeast Birmingham, Ala. L, 83-79
1988 No. 4 No. 13 NC-Charlotte Mideast Birmingham, Ala. W, 98-92 (OT)
No. 5 Louisville Mideast Birmingham, Ala. L, 97-76
1990 No. 12 No. 5 Clemson East Hartford, Conn. L, 49-47
1991 No. 10 No. 7 Virginia West Salt Lake City W, 61-48
No. 2 Arizona West Salt Lake City L, 76-61
1992 No. 10 No. 7 LSU West Boise, Idaho L, 94-83
1993 No. 7 No. 10 SMU Midwest Chicago W, 80-71
No. 2 Kansas Midwest Chicago L, 90-76
1995 No. 8 No. 9 Tulane Midwest Memphis, Tenn. L, 76-70
2001 No. 12 No. 5 Cincinnati West San Diego L, 84-59
2003 No. 12 No. 5 UConn South Spokane, Wash. L, 58-53
2004 No. 12 No. 5 Syracuse Phoenix Denver L, 80-75
2007 No. 8 No. 9 Xavier South Lexington, Ky. L, 79-77
2008 No. 8 No. 9 Texas A&M West Anaheim, Calif. L, 67-62
2009 No. 8 No. 9 Texas A&M West Philadelphia L, 79-66
2010 No. 7 No. 10 Florida West Oklahoma City W, 99-92 (OT)
No. 2 Kansas State West Oklahoma City L, 84-72
2011 No. 3 No. 14 Wofford Southeast Denver W, 74-66
No. 11 Gonzaga Southeast Denver W, 89-67
No. 2 Florida Southeast New Orleans L, 83-74 (OT)
2012 No. 14 No. 14 Iona West Dayton, Ohio W, 78-72
No. 3 Marquette West Louisville, Ky. L, 88-68
2014 No. 10 No. 7 Oregon West Milwaukee L, 87-68
2015 No. 11 No. 11 Ole Miss West Dayton, Ohio L, 94-90

BYU’s all-time NCAA record: 15-32 (29 appearances)