OMAHA, Neb. — Having played in the rough-and-tumble Big 12 this past season, with surprisingly positive results, BYU’s men’s basketball team won’t be intimidated by any of the teams it faces in the NCAA Tournament the remainder of the month, coach Mark Pope said on Sunday.

“Obviously, everybody’s goal is to win a championship. So hopefully we can go out and accomplish that. That’s what everybody’s mind is set on, so we are going to lock in and try to shock the whole world.”

—  BYU guard Jaxson Robinson

But the Cougars, who face upstart Duquesne here in a first-round game on Thursday (10:40 a.m. MDT, TruTV) at CHI Heath Center Arena, have another obstacle to overcome. BYU’s history in the Big Dance is mostly forgettable, save its Danny Ainge-led Elite Eight run in 1981 and Jimmer Fredette-led Sweet 16 run in 2011.

Those wins in 2011 over Wofford and Gonzaga marked the first, and only, time since 1981 that BYU has won more than two games in a single NCAA Tournament. All time, BYU is a disappointing 15-33 in the Big Dance.

And then there is this: BYU holds the distinction, dubious or otherwise, of having the most appearances in the NCAA Tournament — 30 and counting — without making it to the Final Four. Up next are Xavier and Missouri, with 29 apiece, but those schools didn’t make the Big Dance this year.

Behind the Cougars, Musketeers and Tigers are four schools that are in the Field of 68 in 2024: Tennessee (25), Alabama and Creighton (24) and Utah State (23).

BYU needs four wins over the course of the next two weeks to realize a dream for its fans that really started to take root in 1981 when Ainge’s iconic drive and basket in a Sweet 16 game gave the underdog Cougars a 51-50 win over Notre Dame in Atlanta.

BYU was a No. 6 seed and had downed No. 11 Princeton and No. 3 UCLA in Providence, Rhode Island, to advance to the showdown against the Irish, which was a national basketball power in those days. But after those three electrifying wins, Ainge and teammates Fred Roberts, Steve Trumbo, Greg Kite and Steve Craig — who would later marry Marie Osmond twice — ran into No. 1 Virginia and 7-foot-4 phenom Ralph Sampson and lost 74-60 in Atlanta.

Virginia moved on to the Final Four, while one of BYU’s best-ever teams returned to Provo wondering what might have been. The Cougars, who are also a No. 6 seed this year, if that means anything, haven’t come close since.

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The Cougars are eight-point favorites, give or take a half-point or so, against a Duquesne team (24-11) making its first appearance since 1977, and sixth all-time. The BYU-Duquesne winner will meet the winner of Illinois-Morehead State on Saturday in Omaha.

Star wing Jaxson Robinson was a member of the 2021-22 fourth-seeded Arkansas team that made it to the Elite Eight in 2022 before falling 78-69 to No. 2 Duke, but didn’t play in the tournament games. He said the Cougars are ready to rewrite their history,

“Obviously, everybody’s goal is to win a championship. So hopefully we can go out and accomplish that,” Robinson said. “That’s what everybody’s mind is set on, so we are going to lock in and try to shock the whole world.”

Making it even more difficult for BYU to break through and get to State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, for the Final Four is the general consensus that the East Region in which it was sent is the most difficult of the four. Pre-tournament favorite UConn (31-3) is there, along with Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State (27-7), Big Ten champion Illinois (26-8) and SEC champion Auburn (27-7).

It is being referred to as the “Region of Death.”

Said Pope, who helped Kentucky win the NCAA championship as a player in 1996: “It is NCAA Tournament time, and every game is the most challenging game of your lifetime. It is all great teams, it is all championship-caliber teams. So we are excited to get it going.”

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After the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic — BYU was in line for a high seed — the Cougars went to the Big Dance for the first time under Pope in 2021 as a No. 6 seed, and were upset 73-62 by No. 11 UCLA in Indianapolis.

It was a sign that a softer schedule in the WCC, with the exception of perennial NCAA Tournament entrants Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, did not prepare BYU well for the Big Dance. That shouldn’t be a factor this year, as BYU went through the Big 12 with a 10-8 record before going 1-1 at the conference tournament in Kansas City.

“Like coach says, it is the best conference in the country, so every game is a Quad 1, Quad 2 game,” Robinson said of the Big 12. “It definitely prepared us for this tournament. But the tournament is a whole new season. Everybody is starting out 0-0. It doesn’t matter what your record was, as long as you make it in.”

BYU’s last win in the NCAA Tournament came in 2012 after the Cougars’ first season in the WCC, a 78-72 victory over Iona in a First Four game in Dayton, Ohio. It was a memorable contest because BYU fell behind by 25 points in the first half, then staged a huge rally and finished with the largest comeback in NCAA Tournament history.

Three years after that, BYU blew a 17-point halftime lead in a First Four game against Ole Miss and lost 94-90 in what would be the final game for the school’s all-time leading scorer, Tyler Haws.

Cougars on the air

No. 6 seed BYU (23-10)

vs. No. 11 seed Duquesne (24-11)

  • Thursday, 10:40 a.m. MDT
  • CHI Health Center Arena, Omaha
  • TV: TruTV
  • Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

It was also the last game of Pope’s first stint at BYU; he was an assistant coach under Dave Rose from 2011-15 before landing the head job at nearby Utah Valley University.

Pope is 110-51 as BYU’s head coach, but that elusive first NCAA Tournament win, let alone a Final Four run, is what is on his mind now.

“The opportunity to play in the Big 12 conference lets us see everything. You kinda feel that you have seen everything, whether you have been able to manage it well or not. So that is a plus,” he said. “I don’t think there are a lot of names that show up on the bracket where you feel intimidated, for sure, just because you have played against the best teams in the country all season long.”

That said, Pope knows the Cougars are in for a battle with the Dukes, whose coach — Keith Dambrot — is retiring after the tournament. Duquesne could become a sentimental favorite in Omaha.

“The non-championship teams have been sort of whittled out and so all that is left is big-time championship teams and that certainly will be the case when we play Duquesne on Thursday,” Pope said. “It is going to be two championship-caliber teams going at it.”

Duquesne University men's basketball coach Keith Dambrot sits next to the Atlantic 10 Championship trophy during a gathering in Pittsburgh celebrating Duquesne earning a berth in the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament for the first time since 1977 Monday, March 18, 2024. Dambrot announced that he is retiring after his team's NCAA tournament run.
Duquesne University men's basketball coach Keith Dambrot sits next to the Atlantic 10 championship trophy during a gathering in Pittsburgh celebrating Duquesne earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1977 Monday, March 18, 2024. Dambrot announced that he is retiring after his team's NCAA tournament run. | Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press