Kragthorpe: BYU, WCC have been good for each other
As the last entry in a parade of unfamiliar opponents visited the Marriott Center to help BYU's basketball team conclude the regular season Saturday, nobody could say that joining the West Coast Conference is hurting the Cougars.
This affiliation that was driven by the football program's independence may or not be temporary, but there's actually a lot to like about it. After a 76-66 victory over Portland, BYU finished third in its first WCC season.
And if that's good enough to get the Cougars into the NCAA Tournament as everything indicates it will be then the move from the Mountain West was not nearly as much of a comedown as some have suggested along the way.
This all has been a little weird, certainly. We'll never know how the Cougars (24-7, 12-4 WCC) would have done against the likes of old rivals New Mexico and UNLV in the post-Jimmer era, but as this season played out, the WCC offered them good competition and credibility.
"It's been fun to go to different venues and play different teams," said BYU's Charles Abouo.
BYU probably would have finished fourth in the Mountain West, resulting in just about the same NCAA prospects. The biggest change is that when the Cougars go to Las Vegas next week for another conference tournament, there's no worry of running into hometown UNLV.
"That's a bonus for us," said Noah Hartsock.
More accurately, the plus would be Hartsock's return from knee and ankle injuries. Even while winning routinely Saturday, the Cougars missed him. "We're probably twice as good with him in the lineup," said Abouo, the team's other senior. "I don't want to admit that, but â¦"
There's no shame in that statement. Brandon Davies scored 25 points against Portland, the kind of lower-tier WCC team with undersized players that he should dominate. Davies has played at an all-conference level for these two months, but the Cougars will need all that a healthy Hartsock can give them in March.
"He's meant so much to this team," said coach Dave Rose, "and the next sentence is, he's meant so much to this program."
That's why it pained Rose to watch Hartsock dress in his uniform and walk out for the pregame ceremony, then not be able to play in his final home game. "My heart will always kind of hurt for Noah," Rose said.
So the Cougars observed Senior Night and Jimmer Fredette's 23rd birthday with the Sacramento Kings guard sitting right behind the bench, taking advantage of the NBA's All-Star break to witness the last Marriott Center appearance of his two former teammates and his fiancee, a Cougar cheerleader.
Jimmer's presence was a reminder of all the uncertainty the Cougars faced this season, moving on without him while moving into a new conference.
"They followed an unbelievable season, an unbelievable team, losing a lot of players â¦ and they have no idea of what the league's going to be like," Rose said. "Our seniors did a great job of leading us through territory we've never been in before."
Rose came out of this regular season with full appreciation for the WCC, while anticipating the same feelings of competing in a conference tournament in the Orleans Arena as he always experienced in the Thomas & Mack Center.
Nobody was quite sure what the Cougars were getting into by joining the WCC. As it turns out, they've fit right in. They've been good for this league, and it's getting them where they want to go in March.