BYU men’s basketball nears conference halfway point

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Elijah Bryant shoots a free throw against San Francisco. Bryant and the Cougars are currently No. 3 in the West Coast Conference. (Ari Davis)

The BYU men’s basketball team has some work to do.

With just under two months until the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas, the Cougars sit in third place in the WCC, trailing Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.

BYU’s NCAA tournament résumé includes strong non-conference wins against Colorado and Princeton, but also tough losses to Utah Valley and San Diego. Opportunities to strengthen the Cougars’ portfolio with games against USC, Illinois, and Valparaiso were squandered. No projections currently have BYU in the NCAA tournament field.

Looking ahead, the Cougars still have some opportunities to improve their seeding for the conference tournament and impress the selection committee in their search for an at-large bid. Key to those hopes will be the Cougars’ performance on the road.

“Right now this team is a pretty good team at home but we get out on the road and we have a hard time executing the way we do at home,” said BYU head coach Dave Rose after the loss to San Diego at Jenny Craig Pavilion. “Teams obviously play a lot better at home, but for us we have too many times during the game where we waste possessions on the road.”

The Cougars have 10 games remaining on their schedule. The good news for Rose’s team is that half of those games are in the Marriott Center. The bad news is the other half of games are on the road. Among those 10 games are three clashes with St. Mary’s and Gonzaga.

St. Mary’s

The Cougars suffered their first conference loss back on Jan. 5 to the Gaels on the road, 81-68. Since joining the WCC, BYU’s worst road record is against St. Mary’s, with the Cougars winning just once (Feb. 15, 2014) at McKeon Pavilion.

While not devastating to the season, losses against either St. Mary’s or Gonzaga are hard to overcome. Conquering those two teams in conference play has proven difficult for BYU, as St. Mary’s and Gonzaga have combined to win every conference regular season title and tournament championship since BYU joined the conference in 2011.

St. Mary’s will visit the Marriott Center on Feb. 18, with the game winner looking to claim the inside track to the No. 2 conference tournament seed.

Gonzaga

BYU has yet to face the Bulldogs this season, after splitting games in the regular season last year. The road team won each game and Gonzaga claimed the season series with a victory in the conference tournament.

When the Bulldogs come to Provo on Feb. 2, they may do so with a top five ranking and the distinction as the only remaining undefeated team in the nation. This seems even more likely, as Gonzaga has already defeated St. Mary’s once this season by 23 points.

BYU returns to Spokane on Feb. 25, which will be senior night at The Kennel.

Rest of the West Coast Conference

Beyond the two established powerhouses of the conference, BYU should be favored to win the rest of their conference games. Removing BYU, St. Mary’s and Gonzaga leaves the conference with a losing record overall. But as every year has shown, there are moments that could derail any shot at an at-large NCAA bid for BYU.

“We need to focus on the next game we have,” said BYU guard Elijah Bryant. “We know St. Mary’s and Gonzaga are very good. But I think if we take it one game at a time, we’ll be right where we need to be.”

Last season, a home loss to Pacific and road losses at Portland and Pepperdine dealt heavy blows to BYU’s NCAA tournament chances.

“For the most part this season, we’ve had losses and we’ve done a good job of bouncing back, which is kind of rare for a young team,” said BYU guard L.J. Rose. He added that moving forward is key after any loss, and to make sure that one mistake doesn’t turn into more.

Anything could happen over the next few weeks, and returning to the NCAA tournament is on Cougar fans’ minds across the country. Defeating Gonzaga or St. Mary’s would go a long way in bolstering the Cougars’ chances at achieving that goal via an at-large bid, but the only sure way to go dancing is to claim the West Coast Conference tournament title in March.

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