Sometimes in the NCAA Tournament, teams are able to ride the hot hand of a certain player.

In BYU’s case, that certain player could be sophomore guard Trevin Knell

During the final six games of the regular season, Knell hit 15 of 25 3-pointers. And in the West Coast Conference championship game against No. 1 Gonzaga, Knell scored a career-high 20 points and nailed 5 of 10 3-pointers

His previous high was 15 points against Saint Mary’s in the regular-season finale. 

“Trevin is not lacking for confidence. He had a great night for us. He was really solid on the defensive end,” coach Mark Pope said of Knell after the WCC title game. “He made shots for us. (Gonzaga) left some opportunities for him to make shots. He did a nice job and our guys did a nice job finding him. Like everybody on our team, he can step up and make big plays for us and he did (that night).”

BYU guard Trevin Knell puts in a layup as BYU and Pepperdine play in semifinal West Coast Conference Tournament at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 8, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

No. 6 seed BYU plays in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday (7:40 p.m. MDT, CBS) against UCLA of the Pac-12, which defeated Michigan State 86-80 on Thursday in overtime in a First Four matchup.

In what many consider a surprise, BYU will face an inspired UCLA team in NCAA Tournament’s first round

Former Cougar Jake Toolson, a senior star on last year’s team, said Knell could be an X-factor for BYU in the Big Dance. 

“At this point, the way that he’s been shooting the last month, he doesn’t even need to make 3s,” Toolson said. “Obviously, it’s great if he makes them. But him just being out there is already such an advantage for BYU because it creates so much space. You have to honor him. It’s hard to help off of him because he only needs a little bit of time to get his shot off.

“He’s kind of changed the offense by being such a threat out there. It’s good to see because he’s taken a lot of steps forward. I’m proud of seeing him come into his own this year and have a role on this team where he’s doing what we saw last year. He’s just now getting the opportunity to go out and do it.”

Mark Pope’s winding road from med school to March Madness
Matt Haarms’ return to Hoosier State for NCAA Tournament brings career full circle

Last season, Knell broke his thumb, limiting his playing time as a freshman. Toolson knows all about that injury. 

“It was during a shootaround. We do this drill where a guy starts at half-court, one guy on one side, one on the other,” he recalled. “I actually passed it to Trevin. I didn’t throw it hard on purpose. It was a chest pass. He broke his thumb. I broke his thumb on accident.” 

Aside from Knell, Toolson likes the prospects of this BYU team, partly because of its depth. 

“There were eight games with seven different leading scorers. That’s a sign of a good team when on any given night a guy can have the hot hand and winning is the most important thing.” — former BYU player Jake Toolson on depth of this year’s team

“There were eight games with seven different leading scorers,” he said. “That’s a sign of a good team when on any given night a guy can have the hot hand and winning is the most important thing.”

Another Cougar guard that Toolson said could be a difference maker is senior Brandon Averette. 

Toolson and Averette were teammates at Utah Valley before they both transferred to BYU. 

“He’s a tough player. He can do everything you ask him to do. Defensively, he can guard the best guard on the other team. He can make plays out of the pick and roll, he can make shots, he can finish, he makes his free throws, he makes his teammates better,” Pope said. ”Whatever you ask him to do, he’s going to do it.

BYU guard Brandon Averette shoots as Gonzaga guard Joel Ayayi defends during a game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“That’s super valuable. I think BYU is interesting. They have a team that historically in the tournament has been able to advance with a senior, veteran backcourt that can score, that can create their own shots and make their teammates better. And they have rim-protection, which is really valuable this time of year.”

Toolson, who played for Pope at both Utah Valley University and BYU, praised the way Pope guided his team through the pandemic. The Cougars didn’t have any COVID-19 issues within their program this season. 

“The circumstances under which they are doing this and having this season is a lot different from years’ past, which adds a layer of difficulty that you can see they’ve played all the games they’ve had scheduled,” Toolson said. “That isn’t a surprise. Coach Pope is not going to let anything get in their way. They’re going to go out of their way to put themselves in a position where they are right now.”

How BYU players are biding their time in the NCAA Tournament bubble
Seeded too high? What national pundits are saying about Cougars and their chances in NCAA Tournament

Toolson is looking forward to watching Pope coach in his first NCAA Tournament game — a year after that opportunity was denied him due to the pandemic. 

“The way that they’ve just kind of dealt with all this stuff that’s out of their control and still have been able to put together a pretty good (NCAA Tournament) resume, that’s impressive,” he said. “They’re really connected on defense and on offense. They play extremely hard and they’re selfless.

“It’s a lot of the things you saw from last year’s team — the Best Locker Room in America, guys playing with no agenda and sharing the ball. I’ve been really impressed. I’m not surprised but I am impressed. Coach Pope, that’s what he does. He gets his guys ready and he doesn’t make any excuses. He’s going to find a way.”