Las Vegas • The BYU Cougars have reached unprecedented success the past seven years under Dave Rose, but there is a hole in the BYU basketball coach’s résumé.
The Cougars have not won a conference tournament title since 2001, although they have made five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and made it to the Sweet 16 last year for the first time since 1981.
Beginning Friday night (9 p.m. MST, ESPNU) when they will meet sixth-seeded San Diego at Orleans Arena in a West Coast Conference tournament quarterfinal, the third-seeded Cougars have another opportunity to erase a history of so-so performances. BYU (24-7) is 8-6 in conference tournament games under Rose.
Of course, those games were all played at the Thomas & Mack Center, Mountain West Conference member UNLV’s home court. This weekend’s games are all at Orleans Arena, a true neutral site which seats 7,500 for basketball and will mostly be filled with Gonzaga and BYU fans, the only two schools in the WCC that travel well.
“As a coaching staff, we are familiar with the Orleans,” Rose said. “We have been there a couple of times for other tournaments, but this is another new experience for our [players]. It feels really similar. We are going to Vegas, but we are going to a different facility, playing a different group of teams.”
The format is also different than the MWC’s bracketing system — the WCC’s two top seeds, No. 1 Saint Mary’s and No. 2 Gonzaga, drew byes into Saturday’s semifinals — but the Cougars are accustomed to having to wait until the night before to learn their opening-round opponent. They did that several times as the No. 1 seed in the MWC tournament.
Not knowing whether they would play Pepperdine or San Diego — having defeated both teams easily on the road and in Provo in the regular season — the Cougars “spent a lot of time on ourselves” in practices this week,” Rose said. “Without Noah [Hartsock] in practice, we have had three or four different lineups we have been working with, and ways we will play offense with those lineups, and defense with those lineups.”
Still trying to recover from a left knee, ankle and calf injury, Hartsock did not practice all week and may or may not play Friday night. Rose said Wednesday before the Cougars boarded a flight to Las Vegas that a decision regarding the team’s leading scorer (16.8 ppg.) and shot blocker (1.6 bpg.) would be made after pregame warmups.
“If he is ready to go on Friday, we will know at game time,” Rose said. “If not, then we will hope for Saturday, if we are still playing on Saturday. … We will just rely on our guys. Our guys have been really good so far this year, facing challenges we have been through. Hopefully, we will be up for the week ahead.”
Along with Hartsock’s status, the other big question dogging the Cougars this week is whether or not they have to win the WCC tournament to ensure their sixth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“We have a lot to prove, definitely,” Brandon Davies said. “We fell short of our first goal, of winning the conference championship. Now, winning the [conference] tournament is our goal.”
The championship game will be played Monday at 7 p.m. and be televised nationally by ESPN.
San Diego vs. BYU
P At Orleans Arena, Las Vegas
Tipoff • 9 p.m. MST
TV • ESPNU
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 24-7, San Diego 13-17
Series • BYU leads San Diego, 4-0
Last meeting • BYU, 82-63 (Jan. 16)
About the Cougars • Leading scorer Noah Hartsock did not practice all week and will be a game-time decision due to various ailments in his left leg. … Las Vegas native Anson Winder has started in 13 games, including the last seven, and is averaging 4.5 points and 1.8 assists per game. … They are 3-1 at Orleans Arena dating back to 2007.
About the Toreros • They are led in scoring by freshman guard Johnny Dee, 13.3 ppg.