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Why BYU isn’t concerned about having a long layoff going into WCC Tournament semifinals

In this unusual season rife with COVID-related interruptions, the Cougars are confident that they’re built to handle adversity, whether it’s the long layoff or not knowing all week which team they’ll face in the semifinals.

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Brigham Young Cougars forward Caleb Lohner (33) and guard Connor Harding (44) go for the ball during a game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

Annie Barker, Deseret News

Because BYU earned a double bye in the West Coast Conference as the No. 2 seed, it has to wait more than one week between the regular-season finale on Feb. 27, a win over Saint Mary’s, and Monday night’s semifinal matchup against either No. 7 seed Santa Clara or No. 3 Pepperdine.

But in this unusual season rife with COVID-related interruptions, the Cougars are confident that they’re built to handle adversity, whether it’s the long layoff or not knowing all week which team they’ll face in the semifinals — as well as anything else that comes their way in the postseason. 

“We’ve had these breaks (between games). We know what to do with this time. When you have this long of a break, you can lose focus,” said senior Matt Haarms. “But since we’ve had a few breaks, we’re used to it. We know what we need to be working on. These previous COVID-induced breaks because of cancellations have kind of helped us make us of that time in a productive way. We’ve gotten better during those previous breaks. This week, we’re using it to get better.”

For example, after BYU fell to No. 1 Gonzaga on Feb. 8, it had to wait 10 days before playing another game. The Cougars used that down time to their advantage and improved. 

Coach Mark Pope and his staff were working during that period to schedule a game for their team during that layoff but nothing worked out. 

BYU has won four straight games since that setback to the Zags in Provo. 

“We’ve had a chance to get some rest, and also get some work in, and get a little bit better, and fine-tune focus. I do think the craziness of the season has made it so — the postseason is crazy, too, but it seems normal. There’s nothing brand-new for us.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

“I’m so grateful that we didn’t take a game or that one didn’t work out for us because we got so much better. It gave us this really unique window to just work on ourselves,” Pope said. “The improvements the team made were just remarkable. We made huge jumps statistically and in how we worked together and our confidence level. We do have a template to work from. The trick is, can we reproduce it? We’re trying to do that in real time. We’ve had a chance to get some rest, and also get some work in, and get a little bit better, and fine-tune focus. I do think the craziness of the season has made it so — the postseason is crazy, too, but it seems normal. There’s nothing brand-new for us.”

That game against Gonzaga, played on a Monday night, was a rescheduled contest after other games were postponed or canceled. 

To prepare for this Monday’s game, the Cougars have been focusing on themselves. 

“Practices have been solid. It’s weird because we really don’t have an opponent to focus on so we’ve been focusing on us,” Haarms said. “The things we’re working on now is going to work against everyone, just playing harder and our three keys — communication, physicality and protecting the ball. Those things are always going to carry over in whatever game we play.”

The Cougars are planning to practice on campus Saturday and travel to Las Vegas Sunday night. Pope said his team will simulate game day Saturday in Provo with a morning shootaround, followed by a scrimmage that night. 

“We’ve been kind of imagining the first three minutes of the game, doing three-minute scrimmages a lot, trying to hone in on exactly how we’d like to start,” Pope said. “We’re doing everything we can to anticipate all the hurdles that we’ll face and jump at ‘em. I think we’ll be in a good spot. We’re excited.”

While this marks Haarms’ first WCC Tournament, the Purdue grad transfer has plenty of conference tournament experience in the Big Ten. What is he expecting in the WCC? 

“The same as what you always expect in a conference tournament. Coach Pope said it in practice. If you expect to go in there and see the exact same type of games you see in conference play, you’re completely wrong,” Haarms said. “There’s always an additional level of intensity in the conference tournament because teams are playing for their lives. I would say 8 out of 10 teams are playing for their lives right now. We can’t get complacent just because we’ve been in some (NCAA Tournament) bracket predictions. We’ve got to come in there with an intensity and a physicality that we’ve had to close the year out.”