The first Monday in March has traditionally found the BYU Cougars preparing for a trip to Las Vegas and the start of their conference tournament. Instead, the Cougars are already home from Vegas, their tourney run done, with a lot of time on their hands before Selection Sunday.
It is time that will be filled with individual skill development sessions, a few team practices, and probably a fair share of hand wringing, while pondering the question: "did we do we do enough to make the NCAA Tournament?"
BYU head coach Dave Rose has answered that question in the affirmative, saying on our postgame show following Saturday night's WCC tourney semifinal loss to Gonzaga that "there's no question; I think this team deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament."
"I'll believe that, and if it happens, then our guys will be ready."
Talking about his team's credentials, Rose acknowledged that "we didn't expect it to be like this. We expected to be able to move on (in the WCC tournament) and play on Monday night. It's going to be an even longer week than maybe what we had anticipated."
Of his 25-8 squad, Rose said "this has been a consistent team all year long. They've found all kinds of ways to win; different experiences, different places. We've won at home, we've won consistently on the road, we've won on neutral courts. So, now, we'll experience this (waiting) for the first time, and see what's next."
"I can't really explain what I think is going to happen; we'll just have to experience it," Rose said. "I do know this: our guys, we'll get back in the gym, we'll get to work, we'll get better and prepare for what's next."
What's next will be either a low seed in the NCAA Tournament, or a high seed in the NIT.
High-profile bracketologists like ESPN's Joe Lunardi have kept BYU in the bracket for weeks now, yet the week ahead will make for some nervous nights, as conference tourneys elevate underdogs to bid thieves and enlarge the pool of at-large teams with which BYU will be forced to compete on Selection Sunday.
In a feature he wrote for ESPN.com Insiders, Lunardi said this about BYU:
"In BYU's case, I'd be more concerned about a 1-4 record against WCC finalists Saint Mary's and Gonzaga (along with the fact that the Cougars weren't especially competitive in any of the losses). The only thing they can really do is hope Oregon and Nevada play long enough this week to remain top-50 wins on the BYU résumé.
At the moment, the Cougars are No. 47 on our board (one above "Last Four In"). However, recent history has not been kind to the weeklong idle bubble teams. It would not surprise me to see BYU passed or squeezed (or both)."
So, as BYU begins its week of waiting and watching, what are the factors in BYU's favor on Selection Sunday?
25 wins: A 25-8 record puts BYU among the winningest teams in the country, and while past performance is not an empirical consideration for the selection committee, BYU's recent history of high-win totals and tournament appearances is a subjective element that makes BYU more than a flash-in-the-pan candidate. BYU and Kansas are the only two teams in the country with 25+ wins in each of the last six seasons.
Solid RPI: BYU has been in the RPI top 50 for much of the season, and the current RPI of 45 is substantial enough for consideration as an at-large entrant. Indeed, over the last four NCAA Tournaments, only 11 teams ranked 45th or higher in RPI missed the tournament. In other words, 94% of the teams ranked 45 or higher in RPI made the tournament field over the last four seasons.
Success against RPI Top 50/Top 100 teams: While not a gaudy record by any means, BYU is 3-6 agsinst the Top 50 and 5-6 against the Top 100. Of the 44 teams ahead of BYU in the RPI, 16 have three or fewer wins v. RPI Top 50 teams.
Other stat/style-based computer rankings: BYU is currently ranked 38th in Sagarin, 47th in Pomeroy, and 48th in the new ESPN.com Basketball Power Index. While the selection committee puts a certain amount of stock in RPI, this trio of measures is representative of the kind of supplemental data to which committee members have access. Again, BYU is top 50 in all of these measures--firmly in the mix for at-large consideration.
Success away from home: 12 of BYU's 25 wins have come away from the Marriott Center, with eight of those victories earned in enemy gyms. Of the 44 teams ahead of BYU in RPI, only four teams have more away/neutral wins, and only eight have more true away wins. Of course, this week, with conference tournaments in full swing, the number of teams adding to their neutral win tally will get bigger.
Personnel issues: the selection committee does consider how personnel losses impacted a team's overall profile, and in-season injuries to Stephen Rogers and Noah Hartsock (and perhaps the season-long absence of Chris Collinsworth) will at the very least be discussed in deliberations regarding the Cougars.
Now, what are some factors working against BYU?
Few marquee wins: BYU has played seven games against the teams ranked in this week's college basketball polls, and BYU's record against those teams is 1-6: a home win over Gonzaga, then home losses to St. Mary's and Baylor, road losses at St. Mary's and Gonzaga, and neutral court losses to Wisconsin and Gonzaga. Last season, BYU was undefeated (3-0) against ranked teams in the regular season. The opportunities for statement wins has been there this season, but BYU could not take advantage on a consistent basis, and as Lunardi noted above when discussing BYU's record against St. Mary's and Gonzaga, the losses were not competitive. Against ranked teams this season, BYU lost six games by an average of 13.3 points per game.
BYU's best wins are against Gonzaga (RPI 19), Nevada (RPI 47) and Oregon (RPI 50). A win over Weber State (RPI 71) will carry more weight if the Wildcats can win this week's Big Sky Tournament.
History: 25 wins, while a notable milestone, do not guarantee anything come tournament time. Since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 26 tourney-eligible teams with 25 or more wins have missed the Big Dance--including five teams last season. One of those five teams was WCC colleague St. Mary's, which went into Selection Sunday with the same 25-8 record and nearly identical RPI (46) as BYU.
Schedule strength: isolating the teams in the RPI Top 50, BYU is 38th among those 50 in schedule strength. Overall (among 344 teams), BYU's SOS is rated 95th.
RPI is a factor, not THE factor: While the 94% number from above is encouraging, numerous teams ranked 45 or better in RPI have spent Selection Sunday on the outside looking in. In fact, there have been three teams ranked in the top 30 of the RPI that have missed the NCAA Tournament. The highest-RPI team not to make the field was no. 21 Missouri State in 2006. That year, no. 30 Hofstra missed out, as did no. 30 Air Force the following year.
Out of sight, out of mind: BYU will have been idle for eight days when Selection Sunday rolls around, and while committee members will not suddenly lose their memories, Championship Week will elevate the profiles of many bubble teams with whom BYU is competing for an at-large berth. BYU's last national TV exposure to those committee members was a devoid-of-drama blowout loss, which won't help the Cougars' cause.
The following days will have the BYU coaches, players and their fans noting every tournament upset and incremental movement on the bubble. Many favorites will be cheered, while potential Cinderella stories will be jeered. Whereas in recent seasons, the only Selection Sunday question has been the Cougars' seed assignment, this year brings a tougher question to answer, and a white-knuckle roller-coaster ride through the week ahead.
As many of the numbers above illustrate, Dave Rose's confidence regarding his team's desired destination is fairly firmly-anchored, but the foundation has just enough cracks to leave crossed fingers. Every unexpected tournament win by a would-be Big Dance party-crasher will create tremors that will shake that foundation; we'll see if enough of it is left standing, six days from now.