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How BYU’s body of work, identity could help it return to NCAA Tournament for first time in six years

Cougars are currently No. 29 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and are widely considered an NCAA tourney team. ESPN bracketologist projects the Cougars as a No. 9 seed

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BYU players huddle during game against Portland in the Marriott Center.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU photo

It’s late January, and with 12 games remaining in the regular season, BYU’s in a good spot, for now, in terms of reaching its goal of being invited to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.

The Cougars are sitting in second place in the West Coast Conference standings, behind top-ranked Gonzaga, and they’re looking to extend their four-game losing streak when they visit Pepperdine Wednesday (1 p.m. MST, BYUtv). 

BYU (13-3, 4-1) is currently No. 29 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and is widely considered an NCAA Tournament team. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, for example, projects the Cougars as a No. 9 seed. 

BYUtv

Cougars on the air


BYU (13-3, 4-1)

at Pepperdine (6-7, 2-2)

Wednesday, 1 p.m. MST

Firestone Fieldhouse, Malibu, Calif.

TV: BYUtv

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM


BYU has earned impressive road wins at Utah State, San Diego State, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco. It owns a 3-3 record in Quad 1 games and those three losses have come at the hands of USC (12-3), Boise State (13-1), and Gonzaga (15-0), with a combined win-loss record of 40-4. 

How do the Cougars feel about their performance thus far? 

“I’ve been pretty satisfied. Of course, there are some games that you always want back — those three losses,” said senior Matt Haarms. “But I think we’ve learned a lot from those, especially that USC game. It’s the one we probably learned from most. We learned that we have to play as a team, not just a group of individuals. I would credit that loss to kind of defining our season, if we continue to be successful like we have been.”

Haarms is the only player on BYU’s roster with NCAA Tournament experience. 

Before transferring to BYU last spring, Haarms spent three seasons at Purdue, where he gained plenty of NCAA Tournament experience. Two years ago, Haarms scored 18 points and collected nine rebounds in a second-round win over Villanova. He helped the Boilermakers advance to the Elite Eight before they fell in a thriller to eventual national champion Virginia. 

Haarms knows all about grueling conference play, too. 

“Matt Haarms played in the Big Ten,” said assistant coach Chris Burgess. “They just beat each other up all year long.”

Last Thursday, Haarms made all nine of his field goal attempts and scored a BYU career-high of 23 points in a blowout win over Portland. 

The WCC is a physical league — exemplified by guard Alex Barcello suffering a chipped tooth courtesy of an elbow in last Saturday’s win over Pepperdine — and BYU will be tested over the final weeks of the season. 

“Going forward, we have some really tough opponents left on the schedule. We just can’t get complacent,” Haarms said. “We’re a good team but don’t go ranking us AP No. 1 just yet. We have a lot of room to grow.

“We have to get better every single day. We have to continue to improve. We’re not a team that’s just better than people. We’re just a team that plays hard and we’re a team that grinds opponents out. We can’t forget that because that’s our identity.”

Coach Mark Pope instills in his team the importance of being resilient in the face of adversity — and frustration.

“It’s almost like these guys want to be frustrated, like we love it and can’t get enough of it,” he said. “That’s a real gift as a team, when it doesn’t turn you totally sideways.”

When BYU’s 16-point second-half lead was cut to just four, 55-51, against Pepperdine with less than seven minutes remaining, Pope called a timeout. 

“We just said we love this frustration. He made sure our whole focus was on getting stops,” said guard Trevin Knell, “ and not turning the ball over. The last six minutes we really took that to heart and played as a team and we got this win.”

The Cougars outscored the Waves 8-0 during the final three minutes to earn a 65-54 win.

BYU’s depth has been a blessing. But because so many Cougars are receiving playing time, it’s been tough to find consistent scorers. It’s not known, from game to game, which player might step up. 

“It’s a lot of fun. We know as a group that we’re really talented and we have a high ceiling but we know we have a lot to learn,” Barcello said. “That’s what gives us more confidence. We need to continue to improve every day. The sky’s the limit for this team as we go throughout the season.”

BYU has been a strong second-half team throughout the season. 

“One of the strengths we have is we have a lot of pieces. During the course of a game, you feel out the pieces,” Pope said. “Our guys have done a nice job responding in terms of we have a lot of pieces to play with and you finally find the right packages and we’re better. I’ve been proud of that. Energy-wise, our guys are on the floor fresh the whole game with very few exceptions. We can keep fresh bodies out there and that wears on teams also.”

Certainly, the Cougars have positioned themselves well so far for the NCAA Tournament. But they know there’s plenty of work ahead.