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The BYU men’s basketball team entered this week in the middle of its most difficult stretch in recent years. The Cougars had lost four straight games. There were emotional meetings, attempts at reinventing their identity and star players stepping up leadership roles.
But the question on the minds of BYU fans and college basketball aficionados centers around the teams chances of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in March. Their résumé once looked unassailable as they pummeled a rising Oregon team and rolled through a fairly difficult nonconference schedule.
There have been bumps along the way, of course. Losing to Utah Valley in a December overtime game was considered an upset, for example. But then BYU won seven of its next eight games, the lone loss being to No. 2 Gonzaga on the road.
“It feels like they’ve been back and forth over and over again,” Bleacher Report bracketologist Kerry Miller said.
But the Cougars haven’t been through a stretch like this since Mark Pope took over the program in 2019. The Cougars had never lost four games in a row during his entire. And it’s resulted in BYU going from solidly in the NCAA Tournament to being on the bubble.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s most recent projections had the Cougars among the last four in, along with North Carolina, Florida and San Diego State. But as a person who admitted he watches a copious amount of West Coast Conference basketball, he seems to have confidence in the Cougars even now.
“They’ve had lulls, they’re a lull now. That’s the bad news,” Lunardi said. “The good news is they still have a chance to do something about it.”
BYU entered the week sitting at No. 46 in the NCAA NET ranking, the metric to which every college basketball team looks to determine their tournament potential. There are various other metrics that contribute to that conversation, though, like KenPom (46), Sagarin (43) and Dolphin (50).
Pope cares a lot about these and other metrics. Hardly a press conference goes by without him mention where his team stands in the NET or KenPom rankings.
Analytics matter to Pope, too. Cougars freshman guard Trey Stewart on Tuesday said Pope recently displayed points-per-possession numbers on layups and corner 3-pointers for every player. Stewart added that the analytics side of college basketball has been “eye-opening” for him.
But Stewart also said analytics aren’t the be-all-end-all evaluation of a team.
“I get the analytical side of things and it’s awesome to see the game like that,” Stewart said. “But you definitely have to just go out there and play to some extent. Analytics ... does show a lot of numbers, it shows a lot of good information. But at the end of the day, you just have to win.”
BYU hasn’t been doing enough of that lately, and Pope has been struggling to suss out why his eyes are telling him something different than the numbers have been. He sees his players playing well, but their metrics telling him certain guys have been ineffective.
Ken Pomeroy, the architect of the KenPom rankings, lives in the Salt Lake City area and has attended several BYU games. He does not see a difference in merit vs. metrics, and thinks it’s the team’s lack of consistent shooting outside of Alex Barcello that is plaguing BYU.
“I think the numbers pretty well match with what I see,” Pomeroy, who is not a bracketologist, told The Tribune.
But bracketologists who spoke to The Tribune said there is still a good chance it qualifies for the Big Dance.
“I think when they’re whole and they’re at their best, they’re clearly a tournament team — both [by] metrics and eyeball,” Lunardi said.
In Lunardi’s eyes, BYU’s tournament chances boils down to two games: Feb. 18 at Saint Mary’s, and whoever it plays in the semifinals of the WCC Tournament.
“If they win those two games, then their résumé is complete,” Lunardi said.
Before the losing streak, Miller had the Cougars as a No. 7 seed. Now, he also has them firmly in the bubble. But Miller is quite bullish on BYU’s resume as it stands now, and said that long as it wins four of its next five games, it should be in good shape.
“I feel like if they ultimately get in, they definitely feel like a team that could do some damage because they’ve beaten several quality opponents,” Miller said.