Through the 2020-21 season, which has been full of uncertainties, BYU — on multiple occasions — has been forced to deal with long pauses and having to prepare for two or more opponents at a time. The same will continue for the Cougars heading into the NCAA Tournament.
During the Selection Show on Sunday, BYU earned a No. 6 seed in the East Region and on Saturday (7:40 p.m. MDT) will face the winner of the First Four game between No. 11 Michigan State and UCLA. The play-in game will take place Thursday.
Tipoff times are still to be determined.
“Ironically, perfectly fit in the COVID world,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “We don’t know who we’re preparing for, we’re going to be preparing for two teams all week long, but that’s exactly what it seems we’ve done all season long. So, our guys kind of laugh about that and that’s how it fits.”
BYU was set to go dancing last year, but the NCAA Tournament was canceled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, after a six-year absence, the Cougars are back. It marks BYU’s first trip to the Big Dance since 2015.
Knowing the Cougars would have gone dancing last year had it not been for the pandemic weighed heavily on Pope, so he, along with senior Alex Barcello and the rest of the staff, jumped on a Zoom call with last year’s seven seniors.
The second-year coach wanted to let them know they were still a huge part in the Cougars’ success this year.
“I just wanted to get them up today and recognize that they laid their own foundation for us to have this opportunity this year and how much a part of this they are,” Pope said. “They taught us how to lead, they taught us how to sacrifice for each other and they taught us how to compete. ... This has been a long, winding story to finally get a chance to play in the postseason. I know our guys right now are super grateful and I know our guys that missed out on it last year are also super grateful and cheering for us.”
BYU is led by three seniors who all have NCAA Tournament experience. Center Matt Haarms went dancing with Purdue, as did guard Alex Barcello with Arizona. Guard Brandon Averette went to the NCAA Tourney with Oklahoma State (before transferring to Utah Valley).
Haarms said he’s used the experience he’s gotten at each NCAA Tournament throughout the season to help his teammates succeed. While the Cougars still don’t know who their opponent in the first round will be, it will be key to focus solely on that game and not think ahead, he said.
“It shouldn’t be ‘make the Sweet Sixteen,’ it shouldn’t be ‘make the Elite Eight,’ it shouldn’t be ‘win a national championship,’” Haarms said. “That’s all fun and games before the tournament starts, but now our ultimate goal — and the only thing we should be thinking about — is making the second round. The second you look past that is the second you’re just done as a team.”
The Cougars will fly out to Indianapolis on Monday, where they will quarantine before playing in the tournament. The team is sure to come up with interesting and fun ways to pass the time (Pope said to make sure to check their social media accounts), but it will also provide the Cougars ample time to prepare for two different teams.
Haarms has a lot of experience playing against Michigan State (15-12, 9-11) from his Purdue days. The Spartans are coming into the tournament on the heels of their worst season under Tom Izzo since his first year in East Lansing (16-16).
The Cougars are fairly familiar with UCLA (17-9, 13-6), having played the Bruins most recently in last year’s Maui Invitational. UCLA was a shoo-in until a late-season slide put its bid in peril.
As it stands, the Spartans and Bruins were two of the last four teams in.
Barcello believes both possible opponents are great teams that play at a high level, but the Cougars will be as prepared as they can.
Although BYU is trying not to look ahead, Barcello believes the Cougars could potentially make a run in the tournament. The senior believes the way the Cougars play and the growth they’ve shown throughout the regular season is bound to help them in the postseason.
“Just being able to fight throughout the entire 40 minutes of each game, whether it’s close, whether it’s a blowout or whether we’re down,” Barcello said. “I think that’s helped us a lot throughout this season with our growth and I think it’s going to help us a lot throughout this tournament. It’s win or go home now. It’s going to be a war.”