The MVP of BYU’s most recent conference tournament championship has played professional basketball in France, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and Mexico. He’s retired from basketball, become an insurance agent and turned 35.
When the Cougars won the 2001 Mountain West Conference tournament on the shoulders of Mekeli Wesley, Cougars fans didn’t expect a famine of twelve years.
BYU basketball played itself into top-10 rankings in subsequent years. In 2011, head coach Dave Rose navigated the team to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1981. Jimmer Fredette won every possible National Player of the Year honor and cemented his legacy as Provo’s most beloved son.
Yet, that elusive capstone to the team’s NCAA tournament resumé has stumped the Cougars. BYU lost in the MWC tournament championship game three times after 2001. UNLV derailed the Jimmer train in 2011, with a 72-54 punch in the gut in the championship game. With two seasons completed in the West Coast Conference, BYU has played little brother to Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, not reaching the tournament finale either year.
Whether it haunts Fredette or Coach Rose — who hasn’t won the a conference tournament championship in his tenure at BYU — is unknown, but recent conference tournaments have been enough to leave BYU fans jaded.
A perennial heavyweight at home, perhaps the Cougars’ difficulty in road games contributes to disappointments in the conference tournament. This year’s team is 5-9 at away or neutral sites. At home, the Cougars are 14-1, with their only loss coming against No. 17 Iowa State.
The Cougars have shown occasional brilliance this year on the road and at neutral sights. They shook up Stanford at Maples Pavilion on Nov. 11. They dismantled this year’s conference surprise, San Francisco, at their gym on Jan. 16. BYU’s most recent road conference win was its most important of all. It beat St. Mary’s 60-57 in Moraga for the first time ever Feb. 15.
“We just need to get better on the road,” Matt Carlino said. “It’s really just a consistency thing. I feel like anything is possible with this team at the end of games, but we’ve got to keep the lead going into the second half of road games.”
This year’s BYU team comes into the tournament with momentum. Rose thinks his squad is playing the best it has all year.
“I think now we have a deep group of guys that are all contributing and playing well, and hopefully that continues,” Rose said.
With proven mastery of St. Mary’s and Gonzaga this year, BYU’s biggest threat going into this year’s WCC tournament is history.
Tyler Haws said the team isn’t thinking about the past.
“I think the stakes are high every year, but we’re taking each game one game at a time and all we can focus on is the next one,” Haws said.
Anson Winder echoed Haws’ thoughts.
“Every other game is just as important to win, whether it’s in March or in the beginning of the year,” Winder said.
Experts predict BYU will make the NCAA tournament this year, pending a win or two in the conference tournament which starts Saturday. Winning the conference tournament, however, would potentially bump the Cougars up to a favored seed in the NCAA tournament. Not to mention, the WCC’s only guaranteed birth in March Madness goes to the conference tournament champion.
In BYU’s first year in the WCC, three teams from the conference received invitations from the Big Dance (Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU). Last year, only the Bulldogs and Gaels made the bracket. Currently, Gonzaga and BYU are projected as nine and 11 seeds — continuing a trend of lessened respect for the WCC by tournament organizers.
This season, there’s only one guaranteed route for the Cougars to play in the NCAA tournament — a road they haven’t travelled for twelve years.