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What can BYU expect on Selection Sunday — and beyond, in the NCAA Tournament?

Against top-ranked Gonzaga, BYU may have provided the nation a glimpse of the damage it could dish out in the Big Dance. Zags coach Mark Few sure was impressed

BYU cheers a 3-point shot as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. Gonzaga won 88-78.
BYU cheers a 3-point shot as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference Tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

LAS VEGAS — It’s been six long years since BYU has found itself listed in an NCAA Tournament bracket.

But that drought will soon be over, as soon as this weekend, when the Cougars are expected to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. It will be the realization of a dream they’ve had all season long.

BYU (20-6) has earned its way into the Big Dance — just like it did a year ago, before the tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.

Going into the West Coast Conference Tournament at Orleans Arena, the Cougars were already considered a lock to earn an at-large bid.

On Monday in the semifinals, BYU played poorly and escaped with a thrilling overtime win over Pepperdine. For much of that game, the Cougars didn’t exactly look the part of an NCAA Tournament team.

Then 24 hours later, on Tuesday night, they redeemed themselves, playing a phenomenal first half and seizing a double-digit halftime lead against the nation’s No. 1 team, Gonzaga.

In the second half, the Zags asserted themselves, going on a seemingly inevitable 23-5 run, and earned an 88-78 victory to claim yet another WCC tournament title and capture the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Still, BYU may have provided the nation a glimpse of the damage it potentially could dish out in the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzaga coach Mark Few, meanwhile, enjoyed watching his team, projected as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAAs, be tested for one of the few times this season.

Few also heaped lavish praise on BYU, hinting that it could be a force to be reckoned with in the NCAA Tournament.

“This is a great game for us. We got punched in the face. I hope that everybody took notice of how good this BYU team is,” Few said. “They have rim protection in (Matt) Haarms, they have shooters on the perimeter that are starting to shoot the ball well and play better. They have excellent ball screen readers and decision-makers in (Alex) Barcello and (Brandon) Averette. That’s a very, very, very good basketball team. They pushed us to the brink (Tuesday). I give them a lot of credit.”

BYU boasts a sparkling resume, with non-conference wins over teams like San Diego State and Utah State, and it has had no bad losses. The Cougars have posted a 3-4 record in Quad 1 games and a 4-2 mark in Quad 2 games. As of Tuesday night, BYU had an NCAA NET ranking of No. 20. They’ve also been ranked in the top 30 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

For weeks, most bracketologists have projected BYU as a No. 7 seed, including ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.

But perhaps Tuesday’s impressive performance could improve the Cougars’ seed line on Selection Sunday.

Tuesday night after the WCC title game, Lunardi commented on the Zags’ status heading into the tournament.

“Two years ago at this time, Saint Mary’s upset top-ranked Gonzaga in the WCC championship game to put the Bulldogs’ No. 1 seed in doubt,” Lunardi wrote. “This time, it was BYU pushing an undefeated Gonzaga team to the limit before the Bulldogs prevailed in comeback fashion. The Zags would have remained a No. 1 seed regardless, same as two years ago, but with the door open for Baylor to ascend to the No. 1 overall seed on Selection Sunday. But the top spot is no longer in doubt.”

As of Tuesday night, Lunardi projected BYU as a No. 7 seed facing No. 10 Rutgers.

The Cougars can be reasonably sure that they won’t face a better team in the NCAA Tournament than Gonzaga.

While clearly disappointed with the outcome against the Zags, BYU coach Mark Pope was pleased with the way his team threw a scare into Gonzaga.

“I couldn’t be more proud of my guys. We addressed a lot of the concerns that we had coming into the game,” he said. “Our guys addressed them really well. We just couldn’t get it done. Just super disappointing. But I’m really proud of our team.”

“I want to give BYU a ton of credit. They really took the fight to us, especially in that first 20 minutes,” Few said. “We couldn’t stop them. They had us on roller skates. They were outcompeting us and beating us to balls. They were executing their offense and making big shots. I think they showed themselves to be a heckuva team and a top 25-level team.”

Because this year’s NCAA Tournament is being held in a pandemic, it will be a unique experience.

The entire tournament — all 68 games — will be played in and around Indianapolis. The First Four will be played on Thursday, March 18, and the first round will tip off Friday, March 19.

Since the Cougars don’t play on Sundays, they will open first-round play on Saturday, March 20. The second round will be played on Sunday, March 21 and Monday, March 22.

After having the NCAA Tournament experience taken away last year, BYU isn’t taking anything for granted now.

Brigham Young Cougars forward Matt Haarms (3) dunks over Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert (24) as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.
BYU center Matt Haarms dunks over Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert as BYU and Gonzaga play in the finals of the West Coast Conference Tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“The biggest thing for us, can we actually get on the court a week from Saturday?” Pope said. “That will bring some closure to a really traumatic experience for us, in the context of, we understand it’s just basketball and this is a worldwide pandemic that has caused so many people so much pain.”

BYU isn’t satisfied with what it has accomplished during the regular season.

Haarms, who played three years for Purdue, located in West Lafayette, Indiana — which, by the way, will host an NCAA Tournament site — has plenty of NCAA Tournament experience with the Boilermakers, who reached the Elite Eight with Haarms.

Now he wants to help the Cougars advance in the NCAAs.

“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,” Haarms said. “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.

“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,” he continued. “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.”

This season, no doubt, BYU deserves a berth in the NCAA Tournament. It’s long overdue. For the first time in six years, the Cougars will be dancing — this time, in the Hoosier State.