Going into Selection Sunday, BYU coach Mark Pope and his staff had a general idea about where the team might land in the NCAA Tournament bracket. 

The program’s players and coaches gathered Sunday afternoon at the Marriott Center to participate in a ritual they didn’t have a chance to experience a year ago due to the pandemic, when the Big Dance was canceled — seeing the brackets revealed on the Selection Show.  

“This NCAA Tournament, you get a chance to get in. Then you put your whole heart and soul into trying to steal a moment. That’s what we’re going to try to do. You want the drama, you want the  names, you want  the whole deal. We’ll get our full share of that. It’s pretty awesome.” — Mark Pope

They watched the proceedings on the Marriott Center’s giant JumboTron, from comfortable chairs and couches.

But watching the Selection Show isn’t always comfortable. The Cougars knew they were a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but it gets a little nerve-racking when you’re one of the final teams shown in the bracket and you’re not sure what you seed will be — and that’s what happened to BYU Sunday. 

But in the end, the Cougars (20-6) were happy not just to be included, but to be a No. 6 seed in the East Region. 

“We thought we’d be somewhere from a six to an eight (seed). That’s what we were anticipating. We knew after the first bracket, we knew we wouldn’t be up until the fourth. I’m not going to lie. I was so happy when the 8-9 (seeds) went by,” Pope said. “They did the bottom half of that East bracket and we were thinking, ‘Let us be the first name called because that’s the six.’ Sure enough, it worked out that way.”

BYU will meet the winner of the First Four matchup between a pair of No. 11 seeds — Michigan State and UCLA, two of the game’s blue blood programs. The Spartans (15-12) of the Big Ten and Bruins (17-9) of the Pac-12 meet Thursday. 

Michigan State UCLA square off Thursday (7:57 p.m., MDT, TBS) at Mackey Arena on the campus of Purdue University.

Who are the Michigan State Spartans? UCLA Bruins?

The winner will collide with the Cougars Saturday (7:40 p.m., MDT, CBS) at Hinkle Fieldhouse, on the campus of Butler University.

Pope noted that it is fitting in this season played amid a pandemic, filled with cancellations and postponements, that his team will have to wait six days to play and it won’t know its first-round opponent until two days before Saturday’s tipoff somewhere in the Indianapolis area, where the entire tournament will be played. 

“We’ll be preparing for two teams all week long. But that’s what it seems like we’ve done all season long. The guys laughed about that,” Pope said. “This NCAA Tournament, you get a chance to get in. Then you put your whole heart and soul into trying to steal a moment. That’s what we’re going to try to do. You want the drama, you want the  names, you want  the whole deal. We’ll get our full share of that. It’s pretty awesome.”

This will be BYU’s 30th all-time NCAA Tournament appearance and it’s only the second time BYU has been a No. 6 seed. The last time the Cougars were a No. 6 seed, in 1981, they advanced to the Elite 8 for the first, and only, time. During that run, BYU beat Princeton, UCLA and Notre Dame, then lost to Virginia.

During Zoom interviews after the Selection Show, senior guard Alex Barcello couldn’t stop smiling. 

“We’re so excited for this opportunity to go shock the world,” he said. “I’m super excited, super motivated. I have a lot of energy flowing through me right now. I feel like I’ve got a new pair of legs. I’m so excited for this opportunity. I think we’re going to shock a lot of people and I know we’re going to be ready to play.”

This year’s BYU basketball team is representing last year’s team that couldn’t play in NCAA Tournament

Senior Matt Haarms is very familiar with Michigan State since he used to play the Spartans regularly during his three seasons when he played in the Big Ten with Purdue.

“Our journey’s far from over. We’re going to watch a great game Thursday, we’re going to watch Michigan State and UCLA battle it out for the right to play us,” he said. “I’m very familiar with Michigan State. I know the way they want to play. I know their struggles this year but I also know that they’ve beaten some of the best teams in the country. It will be an exciting matchup either way, whether it’s UCLA or Michigan State. I’m going to be ready to go and I’m extremely excited to be back in the tournament.”

UCLA heads into the NCAA Tournament on a four-game losing streak and the Bruins are 4-6 in their last 10 games. Michigan State, meanwhile, has posted a 5-5 mark in its last 10 games. 

Still, UCLA and Michigan State are marquee names in the history of the NCAA Tournament.  

“We thought it would be a heck of a way to start the tournament,” NCAA Selection Committee chair Mitch Barnhart joked about the Michigan State-UCLA matchup in the First Four. 

The team that survives out of UCLA, Michigan State and BYU could face No. 3 seed Texas in the second round. 

Pope recalled that BYU crossed paths with UCLA and Michigan State in the 2019 Maui Invitational. The Cougars defeated the Bruins in the first round of that tournament. 

UCLA coach Mick Cronin and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo are two of the nation’s most successful coaches. 

“They’re two of the best coaches ever to coach college basketball. Both of those guys are legendary status and they’re both such extraordinary coaches and such great human beings,” Pope said. “If you’re going to go play in the NCAA Tournament, you probably want to have Michigan State and UCLA right there, getting a chance to play one of them. It’s incredibly exciting.”

What was Barcello’s reaction when he saw his potential opponents revealed on the screen?

“Motivated. We know that they’re both great teams. They’re both really well-coached,” Barcello said. “In practice the last few days, we were guessing the matchups that we would have and one of the teams was Michigan State. We were playing as physical as we can, guarding in transition and trying to crash the boards as hard as we can. We know every game’s going to be a battle but we’re ready for it.”

Though it doesn’t play until Saturday, BYU is scheduled to leave for Indianapolis Monday, as per NCAA protocol. Before arriving, teams are required by the NCAA to have seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests before they are quarantined inside the NCAA Tournament bubble. 

“We’ve done everything we can to stay healthy. Because of what happened last year, we have this incredible sense of urgency to stay healthy and to play well. We also have an unbelievable amount of gratitude to be able to do this,” Pope said. “First thing is, we have to get on this plane tomorrow. We passed our (COVID-19) test again (Sunday). We have to take one right before we leave or right when we get there tomorrow. We just have to get to the bubble. That’s my biggest sense of urgency.”

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For Haarms, this NCAA Tournament experience means returning to the state of Indiana, where he played his first three years of college basketball. 

Haarms said Sunday’s Selection Show was a memorable experience. 

“They really made us wait for it though three long commercial breaks. It was great to find out who we’re playing. It was super exciting,” he said. “The revealing of the bracket itself is such an awesome event. The whole March Madness is the greatest sporting event in the world. To be featured on TV, watching to find out who we play, is really awesome.”

And for the first time in six years, BYU is dancing again.

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