Provo • This year’s BYU basketball team has had an unsatisfying season, by the standards that coach Dave Rose has set in his eight-year tenure. The Cougars failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 and bowed out of the West Coast Conference tournament earlier than expected.
But the players have hung together through the rough stretches, they insist, and believe the camaraderie they’ve established is a big reason they are still playing and want to continue playing as long as they can.
The Cougars (22-11) are back on the Marriott Center floor Monday night, facing 24-11 Mercer of Macon, Ga., in a National Invitation Tournament second-round game at 7 p.m. BYU is two wins away from reaching the NIT’s Final Four and the trip to New York City to play in Madison Square Garden that comes with it.
“We have a great group of guys,” senior guard Brock Zylstra said. “We are not just a team on the court, but we get along really well in the locker room and off the court. We always have each others’ backs. ... We didn’t get all the wins that we wanted to, but a key to our success is that we have stuck together, and a lot of teams have fallen apart because they didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, but we are together. We want to win this tournament.”
While the NIT is littered with clubs which haven’t been able to get over the disappointment of not making the NCAAs — such as Washington, which BYU pounded 90-79 last week in the opener — the Cougars have somehow managed to be genuinely enthused about the competition to be known as the 69th best team in the country.
That has manifested itself in not only how well they played last Tuesday, but also how hard and often they have practiced since losing 72-69 to San Diego back on March 8.
“I can tell you the one thing that is really impressive about this group of guys is how close they are,” Rose said. “This is a really close-knit team, and they want to keep playing. Hopefully our effort will show that on Monday night. But definitely our effort last Tuesday night showed, from top to bottom, that the guys still want to play.”
Mercer isn’t known as a college basketball power, by any stretch, but several days of watching the Bears on film has shown BYU players and coaches that advancing to the third round won’t be easy.
“We are impressed,” Rose said. “It is a good team. Obviously, you go to Florida State, and beat Florida State, you win at Alabama, then you win at Tennessee, you have got yourself a pretty good team.”
Along with knocking off those more well-known programs, Mercer won the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season championship over Georgetown-killer Florida Gulf Coast and others, but lost to the Eagles 88-75 in the conference tournament final. Rose has emphasized to his team, which was expecting to face Tennessee before the Bears stunned the Vols 75-67 in Knoxville last Wednesday, that Mercer has won six straight postseason games, including at Utah State in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament final last year.
“They are a winning program,” said BYU’s Tyler Haws, who scored 37 points in the win over Washington. “I think Coach said something like they are 6-0, or something like that, in past postseason games. They know how to win. But we have a good history, too. So it will be a good battle.”
The Cougars are at a slight disadvantage with the game being played Monday because they do not practice on Sundays. But Rose downplayed that concern last week, saying the Cougars would practice late Saturday night and go a little harder than normal in their shootaround Monday morning.
“We don’t [play on Monday] very often, but when we do it, we just kind of deal with it,” Rose said.
Mercer at BYU
Monday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPNNEWS
BYU vs. Mercer
P At the Marriott Center, Provo
Tipoff • 7 p.m.
TV • ESPNEWS
Radio • 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 22-11, Mercer 24-11
Series history • First meeting
About the Cougars • They have a 13-8 record in the NIT and are 7-1 in NIT games played in the Marriott Center. ... They are averaging 76.9 points per game. ... F Josh Sharp is doubtful with a strained Achilles tendon.
About the Bears • They are led in scoring by their guards, Travis Smith (13.8 ppg.) and Langston Hall (11.2 ppg.), and shoot 35.4 percent from 3-point range. ... They average 65.7 points per game but hold opponents to 58.4 ppg. ... Coach Bob Hoffman is in his fifth year at the school in Macon, Ga., and has a 99-72 overall record.