The Big Dance, “One Shining Moment,” the atmosphere surrounding what BYU coach Mark Pope called the greatest sporting event in the world, has a Cougars basketball team cranked up to be in a lockdown bubble in Indianapolis the week of the NCAA basketball tournament’s first round.
Really, it will be like going to a cozy jail.
The Cougars, who have been seeded better than No. 6 just four times, will face either a very tough Michigan State team or UCLA after Thursday’s play-in game is decided.
Players will be confined to their hotel rooms but for one-hour-and-50-minute practices and another outing for some weightlifting. No eating out, no sightseeing, no being around outsiders. It’s the most restrictive Big Dance in history.
They might as well be on the moon.
But Pope doesn’t care.
He’ll take it. The quarantine, the lockdowns, guys in their rooms all day and night, restrictions, limitations, the danger of going home if there is just one positive COVID-19 test of a player or staff member. It doesn’t matter to him. All will be worth it.
This is it. This is what it’s all about. This is the one big chance, a single-elimination tournament wherein you win and stay, or lose and go home.
“This is the most momentarily recognizable part of any program’s production, right? To be in the tournament. I mean this one shining moment, right? It is frozen in time.” — Mark Pope
BYU’s hunger for this event is exacerbated because a year ago the team led by half a roster of seniors, including TJ Haws, Jake Toolson and Yoeli Childs, didn’t get the opportunity to compete because of the pandemic.
It was like a sprint into a brick wall.
This opportunity is so precious to Pope that he made a point of getting his seven seniors from 2020 on a Zoom call before Selection Sunday, emphasizing how much he loved them and wanted this for them, that they were representing that team this year in Indianapolis.
“This is the most momentarily recognizable part of any program’s production, right? To be in the tournament. I mean this one shining moment, right? It is frozen in time,” said Pope.
“You know, I got to live through this as a player. You have moments in this tournament because the whole world is watching, paying attention to that moment that people can remember forever, not just BYU fans but the world. So certainly, all of our guys are so excited to have a chance to take a big swing at it, to leave their mark on this hallowed NCAA Tournament experience. So yeah, I think it’s a huge deal. And I think, you know, we’re always going to be evaluated by everything, but this is certainly your slice of that.”
BYU’s history in the NCAA Tournament is interesting. In the decade of the ’50s, three teams went to the NCAA Tournament. In the ’60s, just two. In the ’70s, there were three. In the ’80s, which included the Danny Ainge team that made the Elite Eight, there were five. The ’90s with Ladell Andersen and Roger Reid had five. The decade of the 2000s had the most, six. And from 2010 to present, there were five BYU teams that went dancing. That includes the current drought of six years after 2020 was stolen from everyone by a virus.
If the Cougars had been able to play in the NCAA Tournament in 2020, which they would have qualified for, it would have been six appearances in that decade — equaling the best decade in school history.
Center David Astle (1989-93) was the first BYU player to play in four NCAA tournaments. Jonathan Tavernari (2006-10) later played in four.
“And I know that every player doesn’t get this opportunity, so I want to make sure that I express how grateful I am to be here. It’s been a tough journey so far with my brothers and with this coaching staff to get where we are.” — Matt Haarms
In rivalry chatter, this is BYU’s 30th appearance to Utah’s 29th, according to historian Ralph Sokolowski. Prior to this season only 21 schools had more appearances. BYU does hold the record for most appearances without a Final Four, while the Utes have four Final Four appearances.
“We were committed to winning,” said Tavernari of his four straight years in the tournament. “That was the only thing that mattered. That pushed everyone to be better. Coaches preparing games and practices, players being ready to execute and perform, staff and administration supporting us.
“During my four years we always had four goals: to win every game, be a top-25 team, play for a championship, and make the tournament. We knew what it took to accomplish those things and held each other accountable not only during games, but especially in practices and the offseason. Senior leadership and experience were big for us. BYU isn’t a one-and-done (player) school, so the continuity every year with the roster helped with chemistry and guidance of how to accomplish the goals.”
Purdue transfer center Matt Haarms understands the significance of his No. 4 Big Dance.
“I’m super excited,” Haarms said. “This team has worked so hard to earn this. It’s not something that every team gets. I’m a little spoiled every single year that I’ve been playing, I’ve been able to make it. Of course, last year we didn’t have a tournament. But every single year that I’ve been in college I’ve been to the tournament. So, I know I’m very spoiled.
“And I know that every player doesn’t get this opportunity, so I want to make sure that I express how grateful I am to be here. It’s been a tough journey so far with my brothers and with this coaching staff to get where we are.”
Haarms has turned preacher to BYU’s team. He’ll be telling them nothing matters but their first game, that thinking about the next, looking ahead to the Sweet 16 or beyond is poison. “Nothing else matters but this first game, we have to do everything we can to win it or we go home and never play together again.”
This Pope team has earned one.
And his team is kind of playing for the 2020 squad too. That’s a lot of motivation.