Patrick Kinahan: Mark Pope pushes flawed nonconference argument

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SALT LAKE CITY — In the end, Mark Pope was forced to tout BYU's nonconference schedule in hopes the NCAA selection committee will buy his self-serving argument.

The problem is his point has a major flaw.

The BYU basketball coach wants his team to get an at-large NCAA Tournament bid based on a strong nonconference schedule. Because BYU was seeded fifth in the West Coast Conference, which often is fortunate to get three teams in the field, he talked up the nonconference success the Cougars had against Oregon, San Diego State, Liberty and Missouri State.

Overlooking losses to 15-15 Vanderbilt and Utah Valley, seeded seventh in the Western Athletic Conference, BYU stood a good chance of securing the NCAA bid by reaching the WCC semifinals. Instead, the Cougars lost in the quarterfinals to upstart San Francisco for the second time this season.

Asked to make his case after the loss, Pope highlighted the nonconference schedule. Estimating BYU was ranked in the high 40s, he said only a few ranked higher had a tougher nonconference slate.

"Are we encouraging teams to go out and play the hardest schedule they possibly can in the nonconference or are we encouraging teams to go play a light nonconference schedule? That's a question I would ask," Pope said.

"There's 49 teams that are ranked ahead of us and only three of them played a harder nonconference schedule. I think that's significant," he added. "These guys have battled since Day 1. We took on every NCAA Tournament team that we could possibly find. We took on every conference champion that we could possibly find. These guys actually put together an unbelievable run of success against great teams. With that said, we stumbled a little bit. Maybe a little bit as a result of the difficulty of the schedule, but this is a good team."

No argument there. BYU is a good a team, conceivably worthy of a tournament berth depending on the results of the various conference tournaments this week.

But comparing nonconference schedules is not a fair fight. Playing in the relative lightweight WCC forces the likes of BYU and Gonzaga to go heavy before the conference season.

Southeastern Conference champion Auburn can feast on cupcakes until January without its power ranking taking a hit. The Tigers, who went 11-1 in the nonconference, plays in a conference with five teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

Same goes for the Big Ten, which has five teams ranked in the latest Top 25 poll. The Big 12, Big East and Pac-12 also have at least three ranked teams.

Sitting at 17-4 overall and 5-1 in conference, BYU was well on its way to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. But the season turned south during a subsequent four-game losing streak that included a late collapse against Santa Clara and inexplicably losing to Pacific, which finished 8-22.

To its credit, the WCC has enjoyed one of its more successful seasons with USF joining top-ranked Gonzaga and No. 19 Saint Mary's as virtual locks for the tournament. BYU was only 2-5 against those teams.

As Pope continues to build his program in preparation for joining the Big 12 after next season, he might want to copy Todd Golden's formula at USF. Dynamic guards Khalil Shabazz and Jamaree Bouyea combined for 40 of their team's 75 points in the latest win over BYU.

"They're both three-level guys," Pope said. "They complement each really well."

His assessment refers to each player's ability to score at the 3-point line, at the mid-range and at the rim. Only senior Alex Barcello gave BYU a consistent perimeter scoring threat this season.

BYU sacrificed shooting for more athleticism this season. Going forward, Pope will need to recruit and develop a better mix of both.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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