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BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) reacts after hitting 3-pointer against the San Francisco Dons in Provo on Feb. 25, 2021.

BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) reacts after hitting 3-pointer against the San Francisco Dons in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The Cougars will square off with UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Saturday, March, 20, 2021.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It’s been a minute since BYU played in NCAA Tournament — but Cougars are embracing the ‘familiarity’

Coach Mark Pope learned a long time ago the art of helping a team play its best at this time of the season. It’s the idea that every game along the way is the most important

SHARE It’s been a minute since BYU played in NCAA Tournament — but Cougars are embracing the ‘familiarity’
SHARE It’s been a minute since BYU played in NCAA Tournament — but Cougars are embracing the ‘familiarity’

INDIANAPOLIS — For BYU, it’s been 2,195 days since its last NCAA Tournament game.

That long absence from the Big Dance ends Saturday (7:40 p.m., MDT, CBS) when the sixth-seeded Cougars collide with No. 11 UCLAin a first-round matchup at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, a venue some call “the cathedral of college basketball.”

There’s plenty at stake and plenty of pressure on the big stage and under the bright lights of March Madness. 

Though this marks Mark Pope’s first NCAA Tournament game as a head coach, he learned a long time ago, as a player under Rick Pitino at Kentucky, the art of helping a team play its best at this time of the season. It’s the idea that every game along the way is the most important. 

cougs on the air

Cougars on the air


No. 11 UCLA (18-9)

vs. No. 6 BYU (20-6)

NCAA Tournament First Round

Saturday, 7:40 p.m. MDT

Hinkle Fieldhouse

Indianapolis, Indiana

TV: CBS

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM


For most of the Cougars (20-6), playing in the Big Dance is a new experience. 

“But it’s incredibly familiar for us to feel like this is the biggest, most important game we’ve had all season because we’ve already done that 26 times. This is our 27th time practicing for our most important game of the season. That part is really familiar,” Pope said. “You might not have felt like a home game against Portland at the beginning of January was the biggest game of our life, but we treat it that way.

“We work really hard to get ourselves there ... The payoff is when you get to this game, it’s like, ‘Hey, this is exactly how we feel every game.’ Hopefully, that will breed some familiarity that will help our guys perform well.”

The Bruins (18-9) rallied from a 14-point deficit to knock off No. 11 Michigan in the First Four Thursday night to advance to this first-round game. UCLA entered the tournament having lost four consecutive games. Now, it will try Saturday to leverage that momentum against BYU. 

Cougars senior guard Alex Barcello, who was named an honorable mention All-American this week, watched the UCLA-Michigan game late into the evening Thursday. 

“What was going through my mind was, ‘March Madness. Anything can happen,’” he said. “There were 3 ½ minutes left and Michigan State was up six and all of the sudden, UCLA pulls it out in overtime.”

Johnny Juzang, the Bruins’ leading scorer (14.5 ppg) suffered an ankle injury against MSU but coach Mick Cronin said Friday he is hopeful that Juzang will be able to play Saturday.

Jaime Jaquez poured in a career-high 27 points against the Spartans. Point guard Tyger Campbell averages a team-high 5.5 assists per game. 

“UCLA’s incredibly skilled. They have some guys that can score in isolation at a high, high level, which is always terrifying,” Pope said. “It’s a recipe for success sometimes in the tournament when you have guys that can just get a shot for themselves and go make a play. They have a boatload of guys like that. They have a big-time point guard who is a perfect complement to those guys. He gets them going and puts them in good positions.”

Pope was also impressed with the Bruins’ physicality. 

“They had 13 offensive rebounds against Michigan State. That’s really hard to do,” he said. “They’re a force to be reckoned with on the glass. They spread the floor and shoot really well. They cause all sorts of problems for you. It’s a huge challenge for us.”

UCLA may have a sizable chip on its shoulder. Cronin said Friday that his team, and Michigan State, deserved a better fate than playing in the First Four.

“Neither one of us should have been in that game,” Cronin said.

As for BYU, it has never lost two consecutive games in two seasons under Pope. The Cougars’ most recent contest was a setback to No. 1 Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference championship game 11 days ago. 

Since 1981, BYU has won every first-round NCAA Tournament game when it has been a No. 7 seed or better. 

What gives Barcello so much confidence that the Cougars can make a run in this tournament?

“The way we play, how much growth we’ve had throughout the season. We’ve been in a lot of games that have played out really well for us and in games that haven’t played out so well, like our last game against Gonzaga,” he said. “Being able to fight throughout the 40 minutes of each game, whether it’s close or whether it’s a blowout, whether we’re down. It’s helped us a lot throughout the season with our growth. It’s going to help us a lot in this tournament because it’s win or go home now. It’s going to be a war.”

“We know this is the opportunity of a lifetime. We want to go find a way to win. Nobody thinks we can do it, but we do. We think we can go win.” — Mark Pope

It starts against UCLA Saturday night. 

“It’s going to be a battle from start to finish. That’s why we came here,” Barcello said. “That’s what March Madness is and that’s what we want —  to play great competition and we’re extremely excited.”

The last time BYU played in the NCAA Tournament, it was March 17, 2015, in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, against No. 11 Ole Miss. The No. 11 Cougars squandered a 17-point halftime lead and lost to the Rebels, 94-90. 

It’s been a decade since BYU fought its way out of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Now it gets another shot.

“We know this is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Pope said. “We want to go find a way to win. Nobody thinks we can do it, but we do. We think we can go win.”

It’s March Madness and the pressure’s on. The Cougars feel prepared for whatever comes their way.