BYU knew it would have a very short turnaround to get ready for its First Round opponent, but it had to wait even longer Thursday night to figure out who just that would be.
The Cougars stayed up late watching the game, which ended well past midnight for them, to see who they’d be preparing for. Senior Alex Barcello said the initial reaction he had to First Four game between Michigan State and UCLA was that anything can happen in March Madness.
The Spartans were up by five points with 1:29 remaining, but the Bruins scored the final five points to send the game to overtime. Then, UCLA sealed its comeback win — locking in a rematch with BYU after falling to the Cougars in last year’s Maui Invitational.
BYU VS. UCLA
When • Saturday, 7:40 p.m. MDT
TV • Ch. 2
Regardless of who would have won, Barcello knew the Cougars faced a tall order.
“It’s going to be a battle from start to finish, but that’s why we came here, that’s what March Madness is and that’s exactly what we want,” Barcello said. “We want to play great competition and we’re extremely excited.”
UCLA came into the tournament on a four-game losing streak, but was able to change its momentum and gain confidence with Thursday’s win. In contrast, BYU is heading into Saturday’s game off a 10-day break.
The Cougars are familiar with long pauses, having had a few through the pandemic season, but have at times struggled to find their legs early on. With the season on the line, BYU can’t afford to be a second-half team this time around.
“Definitely, UCLA is going to be warmed up and prepared because they played last night, but I think we did learn a lot from that [West Coast Conference] Tournament,” Barcello said. “... We’ve got to start out hot. Our mind’s got to be there. We’ve got to be locked in on the defensive end on personnel, and we’ve got to battle for the whole 40 minutes.”
Jaime Jaquez Jr., who led the Bruins against Michigan State with a career-high 27 points, is fairly familiar with BYU, having played against the Cougars in last year’s Maui Invitational. BYU walked away with a 78-63 win.
The Bruins’ sophomore guard considers BYU a really good team and said the Cougars are a sixth seed “for a reason” during a Friday press conference.
A year ago, the Maui Invitation served as the start of Jaquez Jr.’s breakout. And once the sophomore went in, was a guy UCLA coach Mick Cronin couldn’t afford to take off the court.
Jaquez Jr. expects for it to be the same on Saturday, and maybe get a different result.
“Last year, we were that team and this year we’re a different team,” Jaquez Jr. said. “Coming into this game, we’re just going to give it everything we’ve got. We have to win one and move on to the next.”
For the majority of the Cougars, this is the first time playing in the NCAA Tournament. For BYU coach Mark Pope, this will be his first time in March Madness as a head coach.
From the outside in, it may look like there’s a lot of pressure for a BYU team that hasn’t played in the NCAA Tourney since 2015, but Pope said the importance of Saturday’s game doesn’t make much difference. The Cougars, he noted, have treated every game this season as the most important of the year, so it’s nothing different.
“It’s incredibly familiar for us to feel like this is the biggest, most important game we’ve had all season because we’ve already done that 26 times,” Pope said. “So, this is our 27th time where we get to practice making this our most important, most crucial game of the season. That part’s really familiar.”
While the coaching staff is also focused on providing a great experience for their team through the quarantine and COVID-precaution-filled NCAA Tournament, Pope said his team is still focused on winning.
“There’s no guarantee to winning, especially in this tournament,” Pope said. “There’s a guarantee of our focus, and we’re focused on trying to win. Nobody thinks we can do it, but we do think we can go win.”