Eye on the Y: Cougars men’s basketball must wait to start WCC play due to COVID-19 cases within Portland

BYU is proud of its early success but realizes a challenge looms when WCC play eventually begins

BYU guard Trevin Knell (21) and forward Fousseyni Traore (45) slap hands during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Liberty on Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)

The BYU men’s basketball team will have to wait a bit to start conference play.

The West Coast Conference-opening game scheduled for Saturday against Portland has been postponed due to COVID-19 cases within the Portland program. The game will be rescheduled for a later date, the University of Portland announced Wednesday.

The postponement of the men’s basketball game came not long after the BYU women’s team saw its conference opener derailed due to coronavirus cases on the San Diego women’s team.

“We’re back to real-time decisions,” coach Mark Pope said Monday. “Everything could change in the next 20 minutes. ... We’re kind of back to that dynamic at least for the immediate future.”

When the BYU men’s team eventually does start its WCC schedule, it’ll be the time of the year that really matters. And with the gauntlet the Cougars have already gone through, they might be more than ready for what’s in store on Jan. 6 against Pacific.

Through 14 games, the Cougars are 11-3. They played many of those games against teams that competed in the NCAA Tournament last season. Eight of their last nine games have been on the road. Not to mention that the team lost two key players to season-ending injuries in Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward.

Despite the difficult road thus far, the Cougars are in a place coach Mark Pope would have gladly accepted had he been told by a fortune teller that his team would be 11-3 at this point.

“I’m not going to lie,” Pope said. “Even with [Harward] and [Baxter] and everything going perfect, I’d be like, ‘Are you serious? Let’s go. Eleven and three? C’mon.’ We have a chance to be an 80% win-percentage team and that’s really, really hard to do.”

The Cougars were scheduled for one final tuneup Wednesday against the Division II Westminster at home before shifting focus to the conference slate. That game is the culmination of a schedule the team feels was tough enough as it was.

“This schedule had everything in it to break us and it didn’t,” Pope said. “It came close, now. And it was certainly costly. But I’m so proud of our guys.”

The conference schedule coming up is also going to be no picnic.

Four WCC teams are in the top 40 of Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Rankings, a metric widely used to evaluate programs across the country. The Cougars are No. 27 in those rankings, while Gonzaga is No. 1, San Francisco is No. 32 and Saint Mary’s is No. 37.

BYU did not receive any votes in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, though. The Cougars earlier in the season sat as high as 12th.

But the Cougars, despite having to change their style of play and continually tinker with the lineup, are in the highest spot nationally in the three years that Pope has been coach, he said. Aside from the KenPom rankings, BYU is also No. 30 in the NCAA NET rankings.

Junior guard Trevin Knell said the nature of the non-conference slate puts BYU in position to perform well once WCC games start Saturday.

“The WCC is a great conference,” Knell said. “We have a lot of athletes, have a lot of shooters. So I feel like this non-conference schedule that the coaches were able to put together has really helped us prepare both mentally and physically.”

Pope said that from a metrics standpoint, the WCC is the strongest it has ever been. It’s a situation that looms large for a team that, in some respects, is still trying to find itself.

“It just gets harder from here,” Pope said. “We have to keep proving it.”

Quick hits

• BYU running back Tyler Allgeier announced his plans for 2022.

• Wide receiver Neil Pau’u declared for the NFL Draft.

• Men’s basketball finished on a high note in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii with a victory over Liberty.

Other voices

• How Tyler Allgeier went from BYU walk-on to record-setting tailback, via KSL.

• Five New Year’s Resolutions for the BYU Football Program, via Cougs Daily.

• Virginia cancels future football series with BYU, Liberty, via FBschedules.