Patrick Kinahan: NCAA Tournament success required to validate great seasons for BYU, USU

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SALT LAKE CITY — Ponder this bit of twisted logic: Both BYU and Utah State enjoyed such outstanding regular seasons in basketball to the point neither matter anymore for each team.

Weird, huh? But there's some true to the outlandish assertion.

Going forward, starting with their respective conference tournaments this week, the two teams are playing for legacy. Nothing that happens the rest of this month will take away from the great accomplishments to date, but early NCAA Tournament exits would spoil each's remarkable run to date.

One week away from commencing the tournament, the Aggies and Cougars are beaming with optimism.

Both teams exceeded preseason expectations, moving away from surprising to legitimate. They were cute stories flying under the radar back when the focus was on football, as it always is until the higher-profile sport culminates with the national championship game in early January.

But now, even if either flame out in each's conference tournament, each will still be favored to win at least one game in the NCAA Tournament. Anything less than advancing to the round of 32 will be considered a disappointment for both teams, who each were ranked in the final regular season Associated Press poll.

In different ways, Utah State and BYU each traveled their own paths to blow away preseason conference rankings. The Aggies, under first-year coach Danny Sprinkle, were picked ninth in the 11-team Mountain West Conference. In their first season in the Big 12, the Cougars were tabbed to finish next-to-last in the 14-member conference.

For the first time in recent years, after finishing a program-worst fifth in the West Coast Conference, BYU coach Mark Pope didn't overhaul his roster through the transfer portal. The continuity went a long way toward the Cougars finishing fifth in the conference, highlighted by winning at then No. 7 Kansas.

With a break or two, BYU could get its best seed since the Jimmer Fredette-led team was a No. 3 in 2011. There's also a chance the Cougars get to play in the Delta Center in the first two rounds.

"You're looking at a four or five (seed) right now," analytical expert Ken Pomeroy said in an interview with The Zone. "I think the consensus is a five, but if things shift slightly, they could be a four. It's hard to imagine them shifting outside that range."

By virtue of claiming the outright regular-season Mountain West championship, the first in program history, Utah State is in position to earn possibly a six seed in the tournament. Given that the Mountain West is ranked fourth this season — ahead of the Atlantic Coast, Big East and Pac-12 — winning the conference tournament this week in Las Vegas could bump up the Aggies another seed line.

"People tend to overstate what happens these next four or five days when it comes to tournament selection seeding," Pomeroy said. "I think most people inside the selection room, they don't want to make a bunch of changes to their bracket once they get it set."

Returning literally 0 points off last year's team, the Aggies are one of the biggest surprise teams in the country. Sprinkle tapped into the overhauled transfer rules to piece together a team, bringing with him from Montana State forward Great Osobor and Darius Brown, among others.

But history might work against the Aggies based on the repeated failures of Mountain West teams in the NCAA Tournament. Aside from San Diego State's magical run into the national championship game last season, Mountain West teams traditionally are gone after the first round of games.

The conference is expected to send five, or possibly six, teams to the tournament. The Pac-12, if it's lucky, will get three teams in.

"Two things come to mind here," Pomeroy said. "One is the Mountain West the last two years, outside the San Diego State run, obviously has been pretty disappointing in the NCAA Tournament. There's always a lot of talk of how many bids they get and then kind of fall on their face. This year there's an opportunity to change that history a little bit because a lot of these teams are going to have better seeds."

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CollegeSportsBYU CougarsUtah State Aggies
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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