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It’s been 20 years since BYU won its last men’s basketball conference title. The Cougars start their latest quest Monday.

BYU faces Pepperdine in late-night West Coast Conference semifinal

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Brigham Young University forward Matt Haarms (3) blocks a shot from St. Mary's College guard Logan Johnson (0) during a game between the BYU Cougars and the Saint Mary’s College of California Gaels held at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.

BYU has been unable to win a conference title in 20 years, but could that change this week?

The second-seeded Cougars will first have to get past No. 3 Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinal on Monday.

Besides No. 1 Gonzaga, which BYU lost twice to, Pepperdine is the only other league opponent that handed the Cougars a loss this season. The Waves upset BYU 76-73 in Malibu, Calif., in late January.

BYU didn’t know who its opponent in the WCC semis would be until Saturday night, but the Cougars were preparing for anyone.

“We’re not scared of any team,” senior Matt Haarms said. “We lost to Pepperdine once. We’re going to be coming into the game, we know their capabilities, but we know that of every single team in this conference. … We know every single team in this conference is dangerous. It doesn’t really matter to me who we’re dealing with or what team we play, but we know every team is capable.”

Although the Cougars will be the last team to make their WCC Tournament debut, they’re no strangers to going long periods of time without playing.

Due to the uncertainty and constant changes the pandemic forced on the 2020-21 season, BYU went without a game in a week’s time a few times this season. It’ll be more than a week since the regular-season finale when the Cougars take the court, and comes after a day the team doesn’t hold any practices.

BYU coach Mark Pope planned a stimulation game Saturday night — at the same time the team is expecting to play on Monday — and then hopes his team will be able to run it back in the semis.

“I’m pretty sure that we’re the only team in the country that is just choosing to play games where you don’t practice or meet the day before,” Pope said. “But we’re going to make it work, and we’re actually going to turn it into an advantage. Monday night, everyone’s going to be like, ‘man, those guys are really smart because they were super fresh.’”

After the Cougars’ one-and-done appearance in last year’s WCC Tournament, and having the NCAA tourney canceled, they don’t want to leave anything to chance this time around.

In fact, as a way to keep the team as safe as possible, BYU planned to travel to Las Vegas Sunday night in an attempt to avoid as many COVID-19 threats as possible. Then, the Cougars will squeeze in an hourlong shootaround at 8:30 a.m. Monday morning before the day’s action starts.

One of the things BYU is focusing on heading into the postseason is one Pope preaches: get better every day. Sophomore Trevin Knell believes the team has taken that to heart and will continue to get better as the postseason continues.

“We have three whole principles that we’re trying to get better for us,” Knell said. “Ever since we lost to Gonzaga, we’re trying to get better at physicality, communication and protecting the ball. We emphasize that every single day, we touch points on it, and I feel like this coming week’s going to be a huge jump for us in these three categories.”

A part of the Cougars’ game that’s bound to help them is the amount of depth the team has. BYU had eight different leading scorers in games this season and usually gets a lot of production off the bench.

Pope believes depth along with a strong defensive foundation can really help a team in a conference tournament. BYU goes into the WCC tourney with the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in Haarms.

“Our offense is still just a little bit ahead of our defense, but our defense gives us so much confidence,” Pope said. “It’s been a difference maker for us this season for sure, and Matt is the ringleader of our defensive effort.”

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