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Swap Sixteen? Sunday play issue could impact BYU, NCAA Tournament

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope talks with the team.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope talks with the team in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Should BYU do what it’s only done twice in 40 years — advance to the Sweet 16 — the NCAA would have to make changes to its March Madness brackets.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it happened before, back in 2003.

BYU, owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has a longstanding policy of not competing on Sundays in order to comply with its religious beliefs, including keeping the Sabbath Day holy.

The NCAA’s regulations features the so-called “BYU Rule,” which makes accommodations for the Cougars so they won’t have to compete on Sundays.

ESPN’s Myron Medcalf reported Tuesday that when the NCAA Selection Committee placed BYU in the East Region last Sunday, it meant if the Cougars were to win two games, they would, according to the schedule, play a Sweet 16 game on a Sunday (March 28). If that happened, BYU would have to forfeit.

However, the NCAA announced a contingency plan.

That plan would involve swapping the East and Midwest Regions’ dates. The East would play its games on March 27 (Saturday) and March 29 (Monday).

It would be “a move that would reduce the region’s days of rest between games to four — and the Midwest would play the Sunday-Tuesday stretch, allowing those teams to gain an additional day of rest between games (six),” Medcalf wrote.

“That contingency will only be utilized in the event that BYU were to advance to the Sweet 16,” Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s men’s basketball vice president, said on NCAA.com. “If they do not, then there would be no change to dates for any teams for regionals.”

On Wednesday, NCAA director of media coordination/statistics David Worlock clarified the situation in a tweet.

“Any reporting about a mistake with bracketing BYU is 100 percent inaccurate,” Worlock tweeted. “The contingency plan, should BYU make the field, began in January, evolved as tournament dates were being finalized and was formally approved by the DI MBB committee more than a month ago.”

Eighteen years ago, the NCAA selection committee committed a major gaffe when it assigned BYU, given a No. 12 seed, to the South Region in Spokane with the possibility of a Sunday game if the Cougars reached the regional finals.

The error attracted considerable national attention and in response, the NCAA decided that if BYU advanced to the Sweet 16, it would have been reassigned to the Midwest Region semifinals, which were scheduled for Thursday-Saturday.

As it turned out, the Cougars lost to UConn in the first round 58-53, preserving the committee’s bracket.

BYU has reached the Sweet 16 twice. First was in 1981 when consensus National Player of the Year Danny Ainge led the Cougars, and second was in 2011 with consensus National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette.

BYU has demonstrated it will not back down from its stance that it will not play on Sundays, even if that means forfeiting a chance at a championship. It’s nonnegotiable.

“People might look at BYU and say, why do they send kids on missions, why do they have an honor code, why do they not play on Sunday?” athletic director Tom Holmoe said in 2015. “But that’s who we are, that’s what we thrive on, that’s why people come here. The closest thing I can say is that the mission of our athletic department is aligned with the mission of our school, and that makes it easy to keep what matters in focus.”

In 1998, the NCAA voted to eliminate the 35-year-old BYU Rule because accommodating BYU would “unduly disrupt the conduct of the championship.”

That ruling was aimed primarily at the women’s soccer and women’s basketball tournaments, which had scheduled their championships on Sunday.

As a result, BYU, and Campbell University, a Baptist school from North Carolina that has a similar policy, battled fiercely behind the scenes to reinstate the rule.

Not long after the BYU Rule was abolished, then-BYU President Merrill J. Bateman rallied support among other NCAA institutions. Within two months, 99 schools petitioned the NCAA to hold an override vote by the entire 300-plus NCAA Division I membership. That list of schools that supported BYU includes at least one from every major conference and institutions from coast to coast.

Fortunately for BYU, 18 months after the BYU Rule was eliminated, it was reinstated by the NCAA board of directors.

“This is a great day for both BYU and the NCAA,” Bateman said then. “We’re pleased that the NCAA would step back, seriously review the issue and reverse the decision.”

Years later, the issue of Sunday play still rears its head every once in a while. Could it play a factor in this year’s NCAA Tournament?

That depends entirely on how well the Cougars play this week.