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How much does NCAA Tournament experience matter? BYU is about to find out

Cougars have three coaches and two current players who have experienced the NCAA Tournament as players

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Purdue’s Matt Haarms is defended by Virginia’s Mamadi Diakite during NCAA Tournament game in Louisville, Ky., on March 30, 2019. Haarms’ NCAA tourney experience may be a boon for the Cougars when they face UCLA in the first round on Saturday.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

While BYU is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years, the sixth-seeded Cougars do have Big Dance experience on their roster and on their coaching staff.

As a player, coach Mark Pope won a national championship with Kentucky in 1996. Assistants Chris Burgess and Nick Robinson also have NCAA Tournament playing experience — Burgess with Duke and Utah; Robinson with Stanford. 

BYU seniors Matt Haarmsand Brandon Averette have varying degrees of NCAA Tournament experience. 

With Purdue, Haarms played in the 2017-18 Sweet 16 and the 2018-19 Elite Eight. In helping the Boilermakers on that Elite Eight run, Haarms played in four games and averaged 12 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks per contest.

Averette played sparingly in one game for Oklahoma State in the 2016-17 NCAA Tournament. 

Alex Barcello played for Arizona and Jesse Wade played for Gonzaga when those teams made the NCAA Tournament in 2017-18 but they didn’t see action in those games. 

As for the rest of the players, Saturday will be their first taste of the NCAA Tournament. What advice is Haarms sharing with his teammates about playing in the Big Dance?

“It’s what I’ve told them all year. It’s something coach Pope preaches every time. Every game we play is the hardest game we’ve ever played. We can’t look past that,” he said. “Teams that have high aspirations do sometimes in the tournament. They look past an opponent. We cannot look past this matchup. It doesn’t matter that we’re a 6 (seed) and we’re playing an 11. It doesn’t matter that we’re supposed to win. You cannot look past that.

“Nothing is given. We have not made it to the second round. What we’ve got to do is beat a really good team to get there. That’s the No. 1 piece of advice — do not look ahead. The ultimate goal of this team right now should be make the second round. It shouldn’t be get to the Sweet 16. It shouldn’t be make the Elite Eight.

“It shouldn’t be win a national championship. That’s all fun and games before the tournament starts. Now, our ultimate goal and the only thing we should be thinking about is making the second round. The second you look past that is the second you’re just done as a team.”

Pope said he doesn’t think any NCAA Tournament experience he and his staff has will necessarily help his team. 

However, Pope said he and his staff, and his players, will draw upon all of their experience, especially from this season that was filled with cancellations and postponements due to the pandemic. 

The Cougars face No. 11 UCLA in the first round. 

“We’ll draw upon our own personal experience from this season probably more than anything I or the staff has to offer. That’s why you have a season, to give yourself as many experiences as you can draw back on when it gets time that you have those to have an increased understanding. I think we’ll be ready.”