PROVO — As the final seconds ticked off the clock of the BYU men’s basketball team’s 73-52 win over Texas Southern, the clock began for a big step in the Cougars’ season — the start of league play.
The Cougars are riding an eight-game winning streak into the first week of West Coast Conference play, opening the league season Thursday at home against Portland. BYU hasn’t lost since a 71-59 defeat to then-No. 25 Alabama in a neutral-site game in Brooklyn, New York. Through eight games, all wins and all but one coming in the state of Utah, the next question is simply: Are the Cougars ready for league play, where NCAA Tournament hopes are decided?
"I definitely think we are ready," sophomore guard TJ Haws said Saturday night. "We’re excited to get going, and I’m excited to have a second round at this."
The preparations are over. While the Cougars (like most of the nation) take Christmas Day to spend with their families and loved ones, the college basketball calendar turns over quickly. Just four days after opening presents and enjoying a mug of hot cocoa next to the yule log, BYU will be back in the Marriott Center tipping off conference play — and this amid final exams after a two-game week against Idaho State and Texas Southern.
"If I had my druthers, I’d put no games in this week," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "Finals at BYU are real; these kids stay up all night, and they are gone so much. We usually play one game this week, and playing two was a real chore.
"The two days off will be great for our guys … then we go nine-straight weeks with two games per week."
What a league it promises to be before re-convening for the WCC Tournament in March at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.
Saint Mary’s, the coaches’ preseason pick to win the league, has fallen out of the Associated Press top 25 after back-to-back losses to Washington State and Georgia over Thanksgiving break — but the Gaels (11-2) still boast one of the best players in the conference in center Jock Landale, a preseason all-WCC honoree.
"To go 11-2 in non-conference play, it’s a really good job," Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said after his team’s win over UNC Asheville. "We had a good win at Cal and good wins at home. Beating UNC Asheville isn’t automatic; we had to play well. I thought we got better.
"Maybe we will look back and say that the Thanksgiving tournament was good for us. We addressed some things and we improved because of it. I just know we are better now than what we were then."
No. 12 Gonzaga, fresh off a run to the NCAA championship game last year, once again looks to be the team to beat. But the Zags (10-3) enter WCC play coming off a 72-70 loss to San Diego State, and a 111-105 double-overtime loss to Florida in the PK80 tournament was weakened after the Gators lost four of the next five to No. 4 Duke, No. 24 Florida State, Clemson and Loyola Chicago.
The Cougars are 11-2 after losing two games under the Barclay’s Center Classic banner against UT Arlington and Alabama. BYU will host Saint Mary’s in a WCC heavyweight bout at 2 p.m. MST Saturday.
The Cougars moved up to No. 60 in KenPom — one spot behind Utah (8-3), which lost at BYU during the Cougars’ run of 4-of-5 games against in-state opponents.
Of course, those two losses mean the Cougars still have plenty to improve, sophomore post Yoeli Childs said.
"No matter if we are 11-2 or 2-11, we just need to trust what we do and stick with our concepts," he said. "Play for each other."
The Cougars are the third-best team in the WCC, according to KenPom, trailing Gonzaga (No. 13) and Saint Mary’s (No. 30). The WCC “big three” are the only teams in the league rated in the top 100, though San Diego (No. 124 at 9-3) and San Francisco (No. 155 at 6-5) aren’t too far off after the Dons’ 66-64 win over Nevada in Las Vegas late Saturday night.
Whether it improves seeding or tournament chances is debatable, at best. But Rose sees the middle of the conference as improving enough to give his team — the third of the WCC’s "big three" — a significant challenge.
"San Diego is really good. Those three road wins (at Grand Canyon, New Mexico State and Colorado) are really impressive,” Rose said. "They’ve got a couple of guys who sat out last year playing for them, and (head coach Lamont Smith) has always had a really good defensive team.
"The confidence that our kids will have going into league play is good. But there’s so much room for improvement."