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PROVO — After finishing the regular season as the second best team in the West Coast Conference, BYU’s basketball team easily handled Loyola Marymount in the Cougars’ first game in the WCC tournament.
While the win was satisfying (and probably relieving) to BYU players and faithful, the Cougars have a much bigger tournament they are eyeing: the NCAA tournament. After an up-and-down season, many media members have suspected that the Cougars will need to win the WCC tournament and lock up an automatic berth to play in March Madness. However, here are some reasons why this may not be the case:
The Cougars have proven they can play with the big boys
Perhaps what may be most appealing to members of the NCAA tournament selection committee about BYU is that the Cougars challenged themselves with a very difficult non-conference schedule. Strength of schedule is a highly valued measure in RPI rankings, which is generally accepted as one of the most influential basketball ranking systems for selection committee members.
According to ESPN.com, BYU’s non-conference schedule was the fourth most difficult in the nation. This demanding schedule is a major reason why the Cougars are currently ranked 31st in the RPI rankings despite an average 7-5 non-conference record and a few losses against bad teams in conference play. By comparison, BYU’s primary rival, the University of Utah, went 9-1 in non-conference play but still stands at a mediocre 77th in the RPI due to its non-conference strength of schedule being only the 346th most difficult in the nation.
Of course, it does not matter how tough the competition is if no wins are produced or if the losses are complete blowouts. In this regard, the Cougars have done fairly well. They have three strong wins (teams ranked between 1-50 in the RPI) to their credit with victories over Gonzaga, Texas and Stanford.
In their losses to teams in the top 50, the Cougars lost one game in overtime at Oregon, lost by two to Iowa State at home and were within striking distance against both Massachusetts and undefeated Wichita State. The only game against an upper level opponent where BYU was blown out was on the road at Gonzaga. While BYU’s 3-5 record against teams in the RPI top 50 is not overwhelming, the wins and close losses at least show that the Cougars are able to play with the big boys.
The Cougars have a bonafide star
It is true that the selection committee is interested in overall quality of play. However, it is naïve to think that major college athletics are not also viewed as (highly lucrative) entertainment. Television producers and media members like to give fans a player to watch who is exciting and distinguishable — a star. Tyler Haws’ scoring adeptness makes him a bona-fide star. This season, Haws has scored at least 30 points an impressive seven times, including a 48-point outburst against Portland.
While there is no doubt that he does not have the same awe-inspiring range as former Cougar Jimmer Fredette, it is exciting to watch Haws’ ability to score in myriad ways. BYU having a star that cameras can be locked on gives the Cougars another good reason for being invited to March Madness.
The Cougars are explosive on offense
In a similar vein, BYU plays a very exciting brand of basketball. Coach Dave Rose likes to implement an up-tempo offense where the Cougars shoot a lot of threes, try to get out and run to get transition buckets and shoot early in the shot clock. This fun-and-gun approach is appealing to more casual fans who would rather see a lot of points than the more deliberate and technical Princeton-type offenses.
While this style of play is exciting, it has also been effective. The Cougars are currently averaging 85 points a game — good for third best in the nation. The combination of entertainment and effectiveness of the Cougars offense is another reason selection committee members should seriously look at BYU to play in the Big Dance.
They have a few bad losses, but who doesn’t?
One of the biggest knocks against this year’s BYU squad is that it has some ugly losses to mediocre opponents. The Cougars have lost to four teams (Portland, Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and Pacific) who are sub-100 in the RPI rankings. While these defeats are unsightly, there are some important factors about them that should lessen their sting.
First of all, all four losses were on the road. While losses to bad teams are damaging no matter where they are played, road losses are more understandable. Secondly, three of the four losses came in the first half of the conference season and the Cougars seem to have righted the ship, winning nine of their last 10 games.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that almost all teams (even those who figure to receive a high seed) in contention to play in the NCAA tournament have bad losses. Duke, UNC, UCLA, Wisconsin, St. Louis, Ohio State, VCU, Syracuse, UMass, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Kentucky, Michigan, UConn, and San Diego State are all teams that Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com has as being at least a seventh seed in his current bracket that have lost at least once to a sub-100 RPI opponent.
While the Cougars’ bad losses will hurt their stock some, the general trend of NCAA tournament-bound teams losing to mediocre competition will help BYU’s chances of playing in March Madness.
Coach Dave Rose has shown he has what it takes to win games in March Madness
Much to the lament of Cougar faithful, BYU basketball has never made the Final Four and has only one Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1981. In their previous seven trips to the NCAA tournament before 2010, BYU lost in the first round each year. Suffice it to say, BYU’s overall track record in March Madness has been cringe-worthy. However, coach Dave Rose has shown that he has what it takes to win games in the tournament with BYU winning at least one game in each of its previous three NCAA appearances (2010, 2011, 2012).
While the Cougars only had one Sweet Sixteen run in that timeframe, they showed that they are at least worthy to be there. This year’s team will not be receiving a high seed in which it is expected to make a deep run. However, if the Cougars can continue their trend of making it past the first round, or at least turn in an exciting and close loss, their bid will not be a waste to the selection committee. Dylan Cannon is a regular BYU sports contributor to KSL.com. He can be reached at his e-mail at email@example.com or via his Twitter account @DylanCannon11.