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PROVO — Owning the 2-seed in the West Coast Conference tournament doesn’t mean the Cougars will breeze through their quarterfinal matchup with the 7/10-seed game winner Saturday.
BYU lost to both 7-seed Portland and 10-seed Loyola Marymount this season in their respective arenas, and though Las Vegas’ Orleans Center eliminates the distinct advantage that playing at home offers — an advantage the Cougars know well — it won’t be an easy path to the semifinals.
Outside of the Marriott Center, BYU was 7-9 during the regular season, including 2-2 at neutral venues.
Both potential opponents defeated the Cougars by attacking two of the team’s common deficiencies in losses: defending the 3-pointer and frontcourt foul trouble.
The Pilots and the Lions get the WCC action underway Thursday at 7 p.m. The challenges posed by each team are similar, as they focus on spacing the floor to find room for open shooters to occupy — especially on the perimeter.
An NCAA tournament at-large bid now seems likely for the Cougars if they can at least make it to the conference tournament final. Anything can happen in March, though, and either Saturday afternoon adversary is capable of another upset.
Portland (15-15, 7-11)
The story was different in Provo, thanks in large part to junior Anson Winder hounding Sharp as he roamed the arc, and junior Matt Carlino carrying the offense with a barrage of eight 3-pointers. Carlino drew Portland players farther from the basket, and BYU was focused on getting in the lane, where the hosts dominated, 38-18.
Only Gonzaga shoots a higher percentage from three than Portland in the WCC. Sharp is a streaky shooter, but it’s logical for Dave Rose to again devise a defensive game plan that centers around picking him up 25 feet from the hoop. This could leave Bryce Pressley (46.3 percent 3-point shooter) and Ryan Nicholas (39 percent) with opportunities for uncontested jumpers from deep.
Portland is a scary team when it gets hot. However, Eric Reveno’s squad is also strong in the paint. The 6-foot-7 Nicholas makes up for the size he gives with solid rebounding instincts and polished moves near the rim. He can also create mismatches with his ability to stretch the defense when he’s hitting from deep. Nicholas averages 12.9 points per game and 8.7 boards. He combines with 6-foot-11 Thomas Van Der Mars (13.3 points, 7.1 rebounds), who had his way in the home victory over the Cougars, finishing with 27 and 18. The low-post duo limited BYU to the same total (38 points) in the paint despite playing nearly an extra half the first time around.
If BYU is to beat Portland a second time, the keys will be holding the Pilots to a low percentage from distance and winning the battle down low.
Loyola Marymount (12-18, 4-14)
Although a well-executed approach limited Lions starting guards Anthony Ireland and Evan Payne to just 11-of-33 from the field together in Los Angeles Dec. 28, Payne sunk five 3-pointers and scored a career-high 27 points, while Ireland’s playmaking ability led to nine assists on top of his 14 points. LMU’s strategy of attacking and drawing fouls on freshman Eric Mika and junior Nate Austin had an even greater effect on the game as the tandem logged only 16:39 of game action simultaneously.
The Lions’ x-factor may be forward CJ Blackwell, who helped them earn a one-point halftime lead at the Marriott Center Jan. 11 by sinking two of his three 3-pointers before the intermission. Junior Tyler Haws and sophomore Kyle Collinsworth took over in the second half, and BYU cruised to an easy win.
LMU would certainly be the preferable foe with the league’s worst scoring defense (77.3 points per game allowed), which is only a little worse than BYU’s (77.2). Yet the Lions play opportunistic defense much like the Cougars and only trail them in WCC team steals per game. They also are second in turnover margin.
Head coach Max Good uses a stable of low-post players interchangeably to try and create difficult looks for rotating post players, which led to the BYU having to shuffle lineups in the first meeting. A contest determined by free-throw shooting would favor the LMU.
Avoiding foul trouble would be imperative for Mika and Austin if the Cougars tangle with the Lions again, and taking care of the basketball is one of the main aspects of beating LMU. Winder’s offensive emergence has translated to increased playing time and gives BYU a capable shut-down defender to make Ireland earn everything, but Payne and Blackwell could keep the Lions in a close game.
The Cougars and the winner of Thursday’s tournament opener play Saturday at 3 p.m.