BYU men’s basketball keeps door open to accepting an NIT invite

The Cougars lost 75-63 to San Francisco in the quarterfinal round, and now wait to see if they’ll be chosen to compete in the NCAA Tournament

BYU coach Mark Pope speaks with players during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Las Vegas • After the BYU men’s basketball team advanced to the quarterfinal round of the West Coast Conference Tournament, coach Mark Pope said he liked where his team “feels.” He felt his players had fire and hunger, and exhibited no fear.

But about 24 hours after Pope’s comments, the Cougars were packing their bags and headed back to Provo, disappointed that they couldn’t make their conference tournament last just a little longer.

BYU lost 73-63 to the San Francisco Dons on Saturday at Orleans Arena, bringing an end to a season that saw the Cougars lose two of their big men to season-ending injuries and go through a few shifts in identity as they tried to adjust.

Now the focus shifts to the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes, which weren’t totally dashed by Saturday’s loss, but certainly did not help. The the latest ESPN bracketology had the Cougars in the First Four Out category. Before the game, they were among the last four in.

If BYU’s name doesn’t get called on Selection Sunday, which is on March 13, it’s likely to get chosen to the National Invitation Tournament. And the Cougars don’t seem finished with basketball for the 2021-22 season.

“We have some competitive guys,” junior guard Spencer Johnson said. “We go play anybody, any time, anywhere. Obviously we would love to go play in March Madness. We hope that happens. We’ll be excited for it if it does. If it doesn’t, I guess we’ll see. But we don’t back down from anybody.”

Pope, when asked if he will accept an invitation to the NIT, said all there’s left to do now is hope BYU gets chosen on Selection Sunday. And he did seem to suggest that if NIT came calling, he would answer.

“We’re excited to keep playing,” Pope said. “I think this is a special group. I think it’s guys that are really together. I think it’s guys that still have really good basketball in front of them. So we’ll be hopeful.”

Senior guard Alex Barcello, who returned to BYU this season so he could better position himself to go pro, led the team with 18 points but made just one 3-pointer in five attempts in 34 minutes.

Freshman center Fousseyni Traore tallied 16 points and 12 rebounds. Johnson had 11 points.

The Cougars trailed by just four points with about 11 minutes remaining in the game, but the Dons scored 11 straight points and never looked back.

Johnson said he felt Saturday’s game was between to NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. The Dons were No. 26 in the NCAA NET rankings heading into the game, while the Cougars were No. 50.

Pope’s case for the Cougars playing in March Madness is his team played one of the most difficult non-conference schedules in the country.

“That matters or it doesn’t,” Pope said. “That takes a toll, also, on a team. That would be my first thing. Are we encouraging teams to go out and play the hardest schedule they possibly can in the nonconference, or are we encouraging teams to go play a light nonconference schedule? That’s a question I would ask.”