What a win over Saint Mary’s could mean for BYU men’s basketball’s NCAA Tournament chances

The final road game for the Cougars is against a Gaels team that is No. 22 in the NCAA NET rankings.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Caleb Lohner takes the ball down the baseline, as San Francisco Dons forward Zane Meeks (5) defends, in West Coast Conference action at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Provo • The final five games of the BYU men’s basketball team’s schedule was, on paper, filled with teams it should beat. LMU and Pepperdine on the road were wins, albeit very close ones. The Cougars play those same two teams at home next week, so you can probably pencil in wins there as well.

But the matchup this Saturday on the road against Saint Mary’s is the crème de la crème of BYU’s remaining schedule. A win would make the Cougars’ NCAA Tournament résumé is all but complete, bracketologists have said.

“I think in the back of everyone’s mind, yeah, they’re thinking about that,” forward Caleb Lohner said this week.

BYU beat the Gaels in their first meeting at the Marriot Center in a low-scoring, methodical affair. But Saturday, the Cougars will be on the road in Moraga, Calif., where it’s been traditionally difficult to win.

Coach Mark Pope is well aware of what beating the Gaels a second time would mean, especially because it would represent yet another win in Quadrant 1, which is considered the most difficult and meaningful quadrant as it relates to the NCAA NET rankings. Saint Mary’s is No. 22 in the NET, while BYU is No. 53.

“It’s not a death sentence for us if we don’t win this game,” Pope said, “But this is a massive game. It’s a really important game. We feel that way and I’m sure they feel that way.”

The Cougars have their work cut out for them as it is, but what could make Saturday’s game especially challenging is they may have to go without freshman Fousseyni Traeore, who suffered a groin injury and did not practice Monday or Tuesday. If he can’t play, some players will need to play out of position, and the team will be without one of its strongest players and best rebounders.

“He will want us to win,” Seneca Knight said. “He will want us to go out there and play hard. Fouss is an amazing rebounder. He’s an amazing finisher in the post. So we’re going to have to just go to other players and find other opportunities to still be productive and get the job done.”

Even leaving Traore out, the Cougars still have some health concerns. Pope said many of his players are dealing with injuries to one of their hands. Lohner said most players on the team are banged up. Pope is hoping that not having a game Thursday will help some guys heal.

“Can we just get some semblance of health back?” Pope said with some exasperation.

Lohner said BYU is plenty excited to play Saint Mary’s and that the team understands the opportunity that stands in front of it. And although Traore may not play, and players aren’t 100% healthy, and some have counted the Cougars out, he seemed confident about their chances.

“I think if we just go into the game and do what we’ve kind of been doing and just fight like we do,” Lohner said, “the game of basketball will take care of itself.”