When former BYU star Travis Hansen was told recently that it’s been 20 years since the Cougars basketball program has captured a conference tournament championship, he was surprised.
“I can’t believe it’s been 20 years,” said Hansen, who was part of the last team to accomplish the feat.
Few people can believe it. But it’s true.
BYU has been participating in conference tournaments since 1984 — in the Western Athletic Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the West Coast Conference — and in all those years, the Cougars have won it just three times, with the most recent title coming exactly two decades ago, in 2001.
Does this year’s BYU team, a No. 2 seed in the WCC Tournament, have any chance of snapping that 20-year drought this upcoming week at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas?
“Are the Zags in the tournament?” Hansen asked, chuckling.
Gonzaga, which is currently ranked No. 1 in the country and has become a national powerhouse, has been one of the stumbling blocks for the Cougars in their quest to win a conference title.
The Zags have knocked BYU out of the league tournament five times since the Cougars joined the conference in 2012. Three of those five losses — in 2014, 2015 and 2018 — happened in the title game.
Since 1984, BYU has won 10 regular-season championships to go along with three tournament titles. The Cougars have never won a regular-season WCC championship.
Even the three times that BYU did manage to win a tournament championship, good fortune smiled on the Cougars.
Since 1998, Gonzaga has won the regular-season WCC title every year but two. They’ve won 17 conference tournament crowns during that time.
“Let’s be honest,” said Steve Cleveland, who coached that 2001 BYU team. “It’s become more difficult the past five or six years in a conference that’s got Gonzaga.”
There was speculation that Gonzaga might opt out of this year’s tournament and just prepare for the NCAA Tournament in Indiana in this pandemic season. But it appears the Zags will show up in Vegas.
“BYU’s getting into the NCAAs no matter what,” Hansen said. “It would be great to win it but Gonzaga’s incredibly good this year. Maybe it’s the best team they’ve ever had. If you bring back Jake Toolson, Yoeli (Childs) and TJ (Haws), then yeah, they might have a chance.”
Are there other reasons why the Cougars have fallen short of winning a conference tournament title?
In BYU’s final season in the Mountain West, in 2011, a Cougars team led by national consensus Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette couldn’t accomplish the feat. While the No. 8 Cougars beat No. 6 San Diego State twice during the regular season, they fell to the Aztecs 72-54 in the championship game at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
That year, BYU was playing without its top rebounder, Brandon Davies, who was suspended just a week before the tournament tipped off.
Over the years, the Cougars have suffered key injuries in the tournament or just before the tournament, such as Kyle Collinsworth’s season-ending knee injury in the 2014 WCC title game.
Last season, BYU, ranked No. 14 in the country, led by Toolson, Childs and TJ Haws, upset No. 2 Gonzaga at home and entered the WCC Tournament riding a nine-game winning streak, but lost to Saint Mary’s by one point as Jordan Ford hit a jumper with 1.4 seconds left.
All of which makes what the 2001 team achieved so memorable and, 20 years later, even more noteworthy.
2001: Climbing to the top of the Mountain
To understand the magnitude of what that ’01 Cougars team achieved requires some context.
Four years earlier, BYU was the laughingstock of college basketball amid a 1-25 season. In 1997, the school hired Cleveland, a relatively anonymous junior college coach, to pick up the pieces of a damaged but proud program and restore it to its former glory.
Becoming the Mountain West tournament champions in ’01 was a grueling process — four years in the making. And it stands as one of the highlights of Cleveland’s coaching career.
“It was the culmination of a lot of effort by a lot of people,” Cleveland said. “It was a really joyful moment. I coached for 36 years and a lot of times, winning is a relief. This was something that was pretty special. It has a special place in my heart.”
The Cougars posted a 9-21 mark in Cleveland’s first season and a 12-16 record in his second as Cleveland stockpiled talent.
In his third year, at the 2000 MW Tournament, BYU defeated New Mexico and faced arch-rival Utah in the semifinals. The Cougars had lost 12 straight games to the Utes, who were a national power and just two years removed from playing for the national championship.
Behind Eric Nielsen’s career-high 17 points, BYU upset Utah — a huge milestone in itself — as the Cougars clinched a 20-win season and advanced to the championship game against UNLV, which was hosting the tournament.
“That win against Utah set the stage for that next year,” Cleveland said. “We had expectations.”
The Runnin’ Rebels raced past BYU 79-56 in the 2000 title game. But the Cougars did go to the NIT, where it won a couple of home games before losing at Notre Dame.
In 2001, seniors Mekeli Wesley, who joined the program as a freshman at the same time Cleveland took the helm; juco transfer Terrell Lyday; and Utah transfer Trent Whiting led the Cougars.
BYU tied Utah and Wyoming for the regular-season title. The Cougars were the No. 2 seed and No. 5 seed New Mexico knocked off top-seeded Utah in the semifinals.
After a couple of hard-fought wins over Air Force and Wyoming — Lyday poured in a tournament-record 32 points against the Cowboys — BYU played UNM in the championship game.
It should be noted that while the game was played at the Thomas & Mack Center, home of the Rebels, UNLV was ineligible to compete in the tournament that season due to recruiting rules violations.
Before the game against New Mexico, Cleveland knew that his team, which had a 23-9 record entering the title game, needed to beat the Lobos to get into the NCAA Tournament. There would be no at-large bid for the MW.
“We wanted to control our own destiny,” Cleveland said. “These guys were driven by it.”
In 2001, BYU hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in six years, since 1995. (In 2021, BYU hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in six years, since 2015.)
“I remember that being the message, that let’s not leave it to chance with the NCAA. Let’s write our story and hold our own destiny by winning this thing,” remembered Hansen, who was a sophomore that season and was taken in the second round of the 2003 NBA draft. “The coaching staff (which included Cleveland, Dave Rose and Jeff Judkins) had a great strategy in each game. Mekeli, Trent and Terrell were next level.”
The Cougars led the Lobos for much of the game but it came down to the waning moments. Wesley dominated, hitting 11 of 12 shots and finishing with 30 points. He earned tournament MVP honors. BYU beat New Mexico 69-65.
“Mekeli had a phenomenal tournament. He could not miss. He drew fouls, got to the free-throw line, played smart,” Hansen said. “He and Terrell and Trent led us through there. They were the big three and it was amazing to be a part of it.”
Hansen recalled a play with 24 seconds remaining when Wesley was triple-teamed but instead of passing to a wide-open Matt Montague behind the 3-point arc, he took the shot himself. And made it.
“That was actually the right play,” Hansen said. “Mekeli carried the whole team. He was amazing.”
What was it about that team that was able to win the title?
“I remember the feeling around the bus rides to the shootarounds and to the hotel and the to actual games was a complete determination to win. We had no fear,” Hansen said. “We had the feeling that nothing’s stopping us. We will will the ball into the basket, which Mekeli did.
“We trusted each other. Everyone was united in our goals and desires. That team was the combination of having a bunch of dreamers and then we put in the work. The compounding effect of all that work put in allowed this team to play so extremely well and show up when the lights were the brightest.”
The Cougars basked in the moment.
“We worked for four years to get to this point,” Wesley said after the game. “We wouldn’t be denied tonight. This is a great moment for BYU. It’s a Cinderella story. It would have been hard to imagine we would be here four years ago.”
Would the outcome have been different had UNLV played on its home court in that tournament?
“Honestly, the way Mekeli was playing, I don’t know if anybody could have beat us,” Hansen said. “He was just incredible.”
Cleveland agreed. “We weren’t going to be get beat by them. I don’t care if it was their home floor,” he said. “There was no way that Mekeli was going to let us lose.”
Four years to the day after BYU hired Cleveland, on March 11, 1997, Cleveland’s team gathered at his home in Provo on March 11, 2001, to watch Selection Sunday and its first NCAA bid in six years.
“It had been a big-time mountain to climb. We had other experiences like that,” Cleveland said. “But that one was unique because of where we had started and the effort by so many people. That was a sweet, sweet moment in my life. I’ll love those guys forever.”
As a No. 12 seed, the Cougars lost to fifth-seed Cincinnati in the first round of the tournament.
But that NCAA Tournament appearance sent the message that BYU basketball was officially back.
“It was a group of young men that were really close. Mekeli was the heart and soul of that team. He was there from the very beginning. Terrell and Trent were so important to allow Mekeli to do what he did. We never get this done without Trent and Terrell,” Cleveland said. “I don’t know that there was ever a group that I felt closer to and more connected to than that group because of the circumstances. We were trying to get to the top of the mountain — and it was hard. It kind of set the foundation for the next 20 years.”
Besides 2001, BYU has won only two conference tournaments in its history — in back-to-back years — in 1991 and 1992.
1991: Lucky — and good
Thirty years ago, BYU and Utah squared off in the ’91 WAC Tournament championship game in Laramie, Wyoming, of all places.
The Cougars had lost both regular-season games against the Utes, who were ranked No. 8 in the country and boasted a 28-2 record. A week earlier, Utah beat BYU at the Marriott Center in overtime.
BYU’s 7-foot-6 freshman, Shawn Bradley, had one of his best games as a Cougar — in his first and only season as a Cougar — in the championship game. He scored 21 points in 41 minutes to go along with 13 rebounds and five blocked shots as BYU knocked off the Utes 51-49 in overtime.
Utah’s Tyrone Tate missed two wide-open shots near the rim at the end that would have tied the game and sent it to a second OT. Instead, the Cougars earned a dramatic upset and the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
1992: The shot heard ’round the (college basketball) world
The following year in Fort Collins, Colorado, BYU’s Kevin Nixon hoisted one of the most famous shots in school history.
In the 1992 WAC championship game, the Cougars trailed UTEP 71-70 with 2.4 seconds remaining. BYU inbounded the ball under its own basket. Nathan Call passed the ball in to Nixon, who took a couple of dribbles then heaved a 54-footer that swished at the buzzer to propel the Cougars to an improbable 73-71 victory, sending BYU to the NCAA Tournament.
Seven months later, he drilled another game-winner against Oklahoma in the Maui Invitational.
But that wing-and-a-prayer against UTEP was an epic moment.
“To be able to hit one game-winning shot in your college career, I think most people would take that because it doesn’t happen very often,” Nixon said. “To have two? When I talk to people about the Maui tournament, people don’t remember much about it. That first one was during March Madness. They don’t call it November Madness or Thanksgiving Madness.”
The importance of a conference tournament title
Is there too much emphasis placed on conference tournament championships compared to regular-season titles? Of course, a conference tournament title earns a team an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But some teams earn their way to the Big Dance during the regular season.
“You play 16 or 18 conference games and win the regular-season championship. That gets less exposure and less excitement than a conference tournament,” Cleveland said. “That’s the world we live in now. You take a body of work over two months and go 14-2 and grind it out and win a league championship. That’s way more difficult than winning a conference tournament in three or four days. But that’s not what appeals to the fans and media. It’s the excitement and energy of the underdog.”
As mentioned earlier, a lot of great BYU teams, including ones that have been ranked and/or won regular-season titles, have failed to claim a conference tournament championship.
Winning a conference tournament is harder than it looks, Hansen said.
“It’s a lot more art than science to build a winning team. It’s about the two Ps — peak and potential,” he said. “You want to be peaking at the right times. That’s hard to do when you have injuries and different personalities and different schedules. Sometimes you don’t mind a little luck. We definitely had luck on our side (in 2001). We were definitely peaking at the right time.”
Sometimes a team needs a player to will its team to victory, like Wesley did for BYU in 2001.
In the 2011 MW semifinals, Fredette exploded for a career-high 52 points — shattering the career school scoring record (surpassing legendary Danny Ainge) and the school’s single-game scoring record all in the same game with an 87-76 win over New Mexico before losing to Kawhi Leonard-led SDSU.
But is winning a conference tournament overblown, particularly if a team has already qualified for the NCAAs, and that it’s all about getting to the NCAA Tournament and advancing? The 2011 Cougars lost to the Aztecs in the championship game but still advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
“You’re so excited about going to the NCAA Tournament that I don’t know if you really care if you win the conference tournament,” Hansen said. “You care about peaking at the right time and getting the best seed possible. Obviously, every game you want to win and every tournament you want to win. But you definitely want to win a national championship.”
Cleveland said it’s hard to say why it’s been two decades since BYU has won a conference championship.
“I would have never believed that it would be 20 years and that it hadn’t happened again,” he said. “You have to have some good fortune. The ball has to bounce your way. There will be a day when BYU wins conference tournaments again. I don’t know when that will be. But it will happen again.”