LAS VEGAS -- The BYU Basketball team opens up West Coast Conference Tournament play Friday night against San Diego. While the city is the same, the venue is different. No longer will BYU be forced to play on UNLV's home court at the Thomas & Mack Center. Instead, the Cougars will play in the more quaint (code for small) Orleans Arena.
I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to assuming BYU will advance to Saturday's semifinal round against Gonzaga. There are a lot of things that will be key for BYU. First and foremost will be health. Having a productive Noah Hartsock may decide how far the Cougars advance this weekend. Like I said before, I don't think it will be a big problem against the Toreros, but BYU needs a healthy Hartsock against the Zags.
Noah has been the most consistent player on the roster all year. With him not at full strength, that puts a lot of pressure on guys like Brandon Davies and Nate Austin to produce down low. It also means that guys like Matt Carlino and Brock Zylstra may need to be even more aggressive on the offensive end.
I'm big into the "feel" of a team. I'm all about looking at a team from a motivation and momentum standpoint. To me, the Cougars come into this tourney very motivated. They know that they are not viewed as a lock to make the NCAA Tournament. There's no doubt that BYU looks at that as a slap in the face. I think it's a slap in the face too. I think BYU has done enough to be a tournament team. They've won 24 games coming into Friday, beat Gonzaga, won at Virginia Tech and gave Wisconsin and Baylor all they could handle.
The Cougars head to Vegas winners of six out of their last seven games. The only loss during that stretch was at Gonzaga last week. Admittedly BYU did not play well. The positive they took away from it was even without Hartsock, they still had a chance to win that game. I believe that gives BYU a ton of confidence if they were to matchup with the Bulldogs Saturday… which we all believe they will.
One other bright spot heading into the WCC Tournament is that BYU's outside shooting has gotten better. When the Cougars are shooting well outside, this team is so difficult to match up with… especially when you add that to a very potent front court.
If the Cougars are even close to full strength, I fully expect BYU to make it to Monday's Championship game and face St. Mary's. Based off of how the Gael's have played of late, they're beatable. There is a lot of work to be done before that's a reality and it starts tonight against San Diego.