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BYU heading into its 30th NCAA Tournament; Here’s a look at Cougars’ colorful history in Big Dance

Over the years, BYU has experienced its share of shining moments, and not-so-shiny moments. While the Cougars have never reached the Final Four, they have a pair of Sweet 16 appearances and one trip to the Elite Eight — 40 years ago this month.

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BYU’s Jimmer Fredette (32) and Florida’s Kenny Boynton (1) during the first half of the NCAA Southeast regional college basketball semifinal game Thursday, March 24, 2011, in New Orleans.

Patrick Semansky, ASSOCIATED PRESS

BYU is on the verge of making its 30th NCAA Tournament appearance.

The No. 6-seeded Cougars face the winner of a matchup of a pair of No.  11 seeded teams, Michigan State and UCLA, Saturday (7:40 p.m MDT, CBS) in the first round.

Over the years, BYU has experienced it share of shining moments, and not-so-shiny moments. 

While the Cougars have never reached the Final Four, they have a pair of Sweet 16 appearances and one trip to the Elite Eight — 40 years ago this month.  

Twenty years ago, in 2001, BYU earned an automatic berth to the Big Dance for the first time in six years. In 2021, the Cougars are making their first NCAA Tournament appearance in six years.

BYU was supposed to end that NCAA Tournament drought last year before it was canceled due to the pandemic. Its all-time NCAA Tournament record stands at 15-32.

Here’s a look at the Cougars’ colorful history in terms of seedings, matchups, memorable moments, comebacks, gut-wrenching losses, upsets, records and other quirks in the NCAA Tournament in the modern era:

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Brigham Young University’s Danny Ainge appears to have sprouted an extra set of arms but they belong to a teammate as Ainge went to the basket for two against University of California at Los Angeles at the Providence, R.I. ,Civic Center Saturday , March 14, 1981 in NCAA second round championship action. Ainge had suffered muscle spasms in his back earlier in the week but was able to make the game

Bill Polo, Associated Press

Ainge and the Elite 8 (1981)

In the NCAA Tournament, BYU holds a dubious distinction.

The Cougars own the record for most NCAA Tournament appearances (29) without reaching the Final Four.

The closest BYU has come over the last 40 years was in 1981, when, as a No. 6 seed in the East Region, it beat No. 11 Princeton and No. 3 UCLA in Providence to advance to the Sweet 16.

Then, in the program’s most famous game, featuring the most iconic moment in Cougars basketball history, consensus National Player of the Year Danny Ainge drove the length of the court for a game-winning layup in the final seconds for a 51-50 victory over No. 2 Notre Dame in Atlanta.

Two days later, BYU’s season ended at the hands of No. 1 Virginia and its star 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson in the East Regional Finals, 74-60. The Cavaliers marched to their first Final Four appearance ever.

The Cougars are still waiting for their first one.

Birmingham blues (1984, 1987, 1988)

For three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances in the 1980s, BYU was assigned to the same place — Birmingham, Alabama — with mixed results.

In 1984, as a No. 8 seed, the Cougars defeated No. 9 University of Alabama at Birmingham before falling to No. 1 Kentucky, 93-68. It was during that visit to Birmingham that BYU’s coaching staff discovered Alabama native Jeff Chatman, who ended up becoming a four-year star for the Cougars.

In 1987, No. 10 BYU fell to No. 7 New Orleans in Birmingham.

And in 1988, the Cougars, a No. 4 seed, was sent to Birmingham again, where they beat No. 13 UNC-Charlotte 98-92 in overtime before losing to No. 5 Louisville, 97-76.

Earlier during that 1988 campaign, BYU was ranked No. 2 in the country, its highest ranking ever, and had a 17-0 record, when it played a regular-season game in Birmingham, where it dropped a 102-83 decision to UAB, altering the course of the season.

Heartbreaker (1990)

In coach Roger Reid’s first season as head coach, BYU earned a No. 12 seed and a matchup against No. 5 Clemson team in Hartford, Connecticut.

The two teams played in an early tipoff — the first NCAA Tournament game of the new decade.

The Tigers had future NBA players like Dale Davis and Elden Campbell. The Cougars played Clemson in a tight game but ultimately lost 49-47. A missed layup in the game’s waning seconds cost BYU a chance to pull the upset and advance.

Ten years earlier, in 1980, the Cougars were a No. 3 seed but fell to No. 6 Clemson in Ogden, 71-66.

Block parties (1991, 1992)

With 7-6 freshman star Shawn Bradley, BYU earned a No. 10 seed and faced No. 7 Virginia, which beat the Cougars 10 years earlier in the Elite 8.

In that matchup, Bradley set an NCAA Tournament record with 10 blocked shots, leading a Cougar second-half rally for a 61-48 victory at the home of archrival Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City. BYU was eliminated two days later against No. 2 Arizona, in a game that turned out to be Bradley’s final game in a Cougars uniform.

The following season, BYU was once again a No. 10 seed, though in 1992 the Cougars had a better record (25-6 compared to 21-13 in 1991). BYU’s first-round game was against No. 7 Louisiana State and star Shaquille O’Neal.

While Bradley was serving a mission in Australia, O’Neal broke Bradley’s NCAA record against Bradley’s former team — with 11 blocks — and recorded a triple-double, in a 94-83 win in Boise.

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Brigham Young’s Terrell Lyday reacts to a traveling call against Wyoming during the semifinals of the men’s Mountain West tournament in Las Vegas, Friday, March 9, 2001.

Laura Rauch, Associated Press

A return to the tournament (2001)

In the 1990s, the BYU basketball program hit rock bottom, posting an abysmal 1-25 season in 1996-97. Midway through the ’96 campaign, coach Roger Reid was fired and Tony Ingle was named the interim coach before the school hired Steve Cleveland.

On Selection Sunday, March 11, 2001, four years to the day after his hiring was announced, Cleveland guided the Cougars back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years. BYU earned the automatic bid after winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament — the last time the program has won a league tournament — and received a No. 12 seed.

However, BYU’s stay in the tournament was short-lived, as it fell to No. 5 Cincinnati 84-59 in San Diego.

Sunday-play bracket mistake (2003)

When it comes to scheduling games, the NCAA accommodates BYU — which doesn’t compete on Sundays due to school policy — with what is known as “The BYU Rule.”

The NCAA Tournament committee must ensure placing the Cougars in Thursday-Saturday brackets rather than Friday-Sunday brackets.

But on Selection Sunday in 2003, the committee made an egregious oversight. Or a calculated gamble perhaps?

Not only did the committee give the 23-8 Cougars, which tied for the Mountain West Conference regular-season title, a head-scratching No. 12 seed against No. 5 UConn, but it also sent BYU to Spokane, assigned to the South Region — with the possibility of a Sunday game if the Cougars advanced to the region finals.

When the mistake was discovered, generating waves of national attention, the plan was to keep BYU in its assigned bracket through the first two rounds. Had the Cougars advanced to the Sweet 16, they would have been reassigned to the Midwest Region semifinals, which were scheduled for Thursday-Saturday.

As it turned out, BYU fell to UConn, 58-53.

For the NCAA, it was crisis averted. For BYU, it was simply another first-round loss.

Mac Attack (2004)

In 2004, BYU received a No. 12 seed for the third straight time, drawing No. 5 Syracuse, the defending national champions, and coach Jim Boeheim in the first round.

The Cougars played the Orangemen tough throughout, but they couldn’t cope with guard Gerry McNamara, who scored a career-high 43 points, including nine 3-pointers, in Syracuse’s 80-75 win in Denver.

Back-to-back vs. Texas A&M (2008, 2009)

In 2008, BYU won the Mountain West regular-season title and received a No. 8 seed and faced No. 9 Texas A&M in Anaheim. The Cougars missed their first shots and fell behind 11-0 in the game’s opening minutes before eventually falling 67-62 to the Aggies.

One year later, on Selection Sunday, BYU once again received a No. 8 seed and were assigned to play … No. 9 Texas A&M in Philadelphia.

And once again, the Cougars lost to the Aggies, 79-66.

As a result, the NCAA is more mindful of, and tries to avoid, repeating first-round tournament matchups from one year to the next.

First-round losing streak snapped (2010)

During Jimmer Fredette’s junior season, BYU earned a No. 7 seed, its most favorable seed since 1993.

That was also the last time the Cougars had won a first-round game.

It was far from easy, but BYU beat No. 10 Florida 95-85 in double-overtime in Oklahoma City, marking the Cougars’ first opening-round win in 17 years. Guard Michael Loyd Jr. enjoyed a career day against the Gators, pouring in a career-high 26 points. 

However, BYU’s run ended that weekend with an 84-72 setback against No. 2 Kansas State.

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BYU guard Jimmer Fredette (32) during a Southeast regional second round NCAA tournament college basketball game, Thursday, March 17, 2011, in Denver.

Ed Andrieski, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Jimmermania and the Sweet 16 (2011)

It was setting up to be the most memorable basketball season in BYU basketball history. Fredette’s scoring onslaught, including bushels of deep 3-pointers, sparked Jimmermania, which was was sweeping the nation.

Days after BYU knocked off No. 6-ranked San Diego State and Kawhi Leonard on the road — ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had projected the Cougars as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — the school announced that starting center Brandon Davies had been suspended for the rest of the season for violating the honor code.

That situation drew widespread national and international attention.

As it turned out, BYU drew a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, tying its highest seeding ever (1980).

Led by the consensus National Player of the Year, Fredette, and playing without Davies, the team’s leading rebounder, the Cougars beat No. 14 Wofford 74-66 and future West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga, a No. 11 seed, 89-67, in Denver. It marked BYU’s first Sweet 16 appearance in 30 years.

The Cougars’ run ended the following week in New Orleans, where they lost to No. 2 Floridain overtime, 83-74.

It remains one of the biggest “what-if” questions in BYU sports history. What would have happened had Davies played with the Cougars in the 2011 NCAA Tournament? With Davies, BYU had a legitimate shot at not only the Final Four but also the national championship.

First Four, epic comebacks (2012, 2015)

BYU has never been to the Final Four, but it has a couple of First Fours in its history.

In 2012, a year after Fredette’s graduation, and BYU’s first season in the WCC, the No. 11 seeded Cougars were sent to Dayton for a First Four game against another No. 11 seed, Iona.

BYU trailed by 25 points in the first half before it staged a furious rally, recording the largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history with a 78-72 victory.

President Barack Obama attended the first game that night and watched Western Kentucky come back from a 16-point second-half deficit. But he left the building before the Cougars’ memorable second-half rally.

Three years later, the roles were reversed in the 2015 First Four in Dayton. No. 11 BYU squandered a 17-point halftime lead and lost to No. 11 Ole Miss 94-90 in the final game for the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer Tyler Haws. The Rebels shot 60% and scored 62 points in the second half.

And that’s the last time BYU played in the NCAA Tournament.