For most seniors around the country, there is a sense of urgency at this time of year as March swiftly approaches.
But toward the end of a unique college basketball season heavily impacted by COVID-19, it all comes down to what happens over the next several weeks.
A year after the NCAA Tournament was abruptly canceled due to the pandemic, these Cougar seniors are focused on finishing the regular season strong, starting Thursday (7 p.m. MST, CBS SN) against San Francisco at the Marriott Center.
“This is my last year. This is it for me,” Haarms said. “I have another month at most playing college basketball. It’s about sustaining this performance.”
Haarms, who scored a team-high 21 points and tallied five blocks in last Saturday’s win at Loyola Marymount, knows what it takes to succeed in the postseason as he helped Purdue advance deep into the NCAA Tournament before transferring to BYU last spring.
Clearly, Haarms isn’t satisfied with what the Cougars (17-5, 8-3) have accomplished so far.
“We’ve won games but that doesn’t mean anything. We’re not hanging a banner yet. We haven’t done anything; we haven’t earned a ring yet. That’s what this team is playing for,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, we’ve won games. That’s great but there’s a lot left for us to do.
“As someone that’s won championships and gone deep in the (NCAA) Tournament, that’s what I value. I don’t just value winning in the regular season. That doesn’t matter. Looking back, I’m not going to be like, ‘Oh, we did so great during the regular season.’ Nobody’s going to say that.
“I want this team to be looked back on as a team that had actual postseason success. That’s how you get judged five or 10 years down the line,” he continued. “It’s really important to me. I’ve had such an amazing time here representing BYU that I want to give the fans a year to remember. There’s a lot still left for us.”
Coach Mark Pope has extolled the contributions of his three seniors all season and said their stats speak for themselves in terms of what they’ve meant to this team. Barcello, Haarms and Averette are the Cougars’ top three scorers and they are represented prominently in other statistical categories as well.
“What Alex and Brandon have done handling the ball, protecting the ball and being creators and scorers and being pesky defenders and physical forces on the floor, is all demonstrated in the stats and the film,” Pope said. “And Matt’s extraordinary rim-protection and his ability to score the ball and take over games when necessary and play every facet of the game, all those things get demonstrated through the numbers.”
But it’s the seniors’ leadership and their single-minded devotion to this team, particularly during a season that’s featured a number of COVID-19 disruptions and sudden schedule changes.
“You saw Alex Barcello and Matt Haarms, two minutes into the Loyola Marymount game, they were as present as you could possibly be,” Pope said. “They were so focused and determined and passionate at the beginning of the game and throughout the game. That’s what you’re looking for from your team. You’re looking for them to get better and stay totally present. Seniors have a magic way of doing that and certainly our seniors have done that.”
Pope has also highlighted the seniors’ concern for their teammates.
“These three guys have gone out of their way every single day to fellowship the guys on this team. To teach them what it means to be a high-level Division I basketball player; to help them understand what it means to be a great teammate,” he said. “Showing them by example when things go wrong for those three seniors, they were great examples of how to be a great teammate.
“When things have gone well they’ve been great examples of what it means to be a great teammate,” Pope continued. “They’ve demonstrated the dedication and commitment that it takes to be on a top-20 team. In all those ways, they’ve taught our guys in a magnificent way. This team has been really special in their ability to absorb frustration and turn it into fight. This team can absorb frustration. That all comes from these guys’ leadership.”
Barcello, Haarms and Averette will be honored in the home finale Saturday against Saint Mary’s in front of around 2,000 fans. The school announced this week that fans will be permitted to attend for the first time this season.
Freshman forward Caleb Lohner is grateful to Barcello, Haarms and Averette for helping him get acclimated to college basketball.
“I give all the credit to those guys. Day 1, coming in, as this Utah transfer kid, they’ve been awesome,” Lohner said. “The day I stepped in the gym, I felt love and I felt like all these guys are trying to help me get better. They’ve been some of the best leaders. I’m going to remember these dudes for the rest of my life.
“All three of them have been a huge impact. I’m super blessed to play with them and be a part of this thing we’ve got going. It’s going to be sad if some of them go. It will be sad to see Matt get out of here. But it’s been such a blessing to have those guys, for sure.”
Haarms has enjoyed his BYU journey with his fellow seniors, who are also his roommates.
“They’re guys that are so committed to this team,” he said. “They both have their own separate skills that they’re really good at. They’re both amazing players individually. When they have a great game, I really enjoy that because they do everything they can for this team. I’m excited for this last week of the regular season and see where we can take it.”
In January, the Cougars swept the Bay Area road trip against USF and Saint Mary’s but they know it won’t be easy this time against the Dons and Gaels. Meanwhile, BYU is being regarded as high as a single-digit seed in the latest NCAA Tournament projections.
“We’ve got to be focused on these (opponents). This happens to teams,” Haarms said. “There are teams that everyone thinks they’re in the tournament and they’re looking ahead to Selection Sunday and the tournament. Then they slip. That can’t happen to us. These last two opportunities are huge for us.”
For Pope, his seniors have performed in a stellar way and he wants this season to last as long as possible.
“You couldn’t ask for three better people to represent BYU,” he said. “And they’re just getting started. We’ve got a run here. We’ve got the best part of the season immediately ahead of us. They’re pretty focused on accomplishing something.”