BYU men’s basketball has played a variety of teams up to this point in the season, claiming unexpected wins and receiving unanticipated losses.
The Cougars began the 2019-20 season with non-conference play, facing teams like No. 4 San Diego State, No. 3 Kansas, No. 21 Houston and Virginia Tech. All of these teams are expected to make the NCAA Tournament come March.
BYU went on the road to Houston as the underdog with ESPN’s Matchup Predictor giving the Cougars a 23.7% chance to win. At the half, BYU was up 35-28 and had a 63.1% chance to win. The Cougars maintained the lead until there was less than a minute left in the second half when Houston’s Caleb Mills made two free throws, advancing Houston to 71-70 with one minute and 25 seconds on the clock.
Both teams went scoreless for the next minute and 20 seconds until BYU head coach Mark Pope called a timeout with five seconds left in regulation. Out of the timeout, the Cougars gave senior TJ Haws the ball, which he shot and sunk at the buzzer. BYU squeezed past Houston 72-71.
Houston held BYU to only 45.9% shooting from the field and 36.4% from three, both of which are below BYU’s season averages of 49.6% and 40.6%, respectively. Houston is 14-3 since playing BYU, with one of their losses going to No.11 Oregon.
Sophomore Connor Harding discussed why he thought Houston was the biggest win so far this season.
“I think it’s a big win because they’re always kicking butt in their conference, and I think they’ve only lost three games,” Harding said. “They’re a really good team, and we beat them at Houston. It’s hard to win on the road against any good team.”
Other big wins for BYU came at the Maui Invitational in December. BYU may have fallen to No.3 Kansas, but they also picked up wins against UCLA and Virginia Tech. Halfway through January, the Virginia Tech game was considered a quad-one win. The win versus Virginia Tech is now considered a quad-two win, which will still aid BYU’s tournament resume.
BYU’s big wins against Houston and Virginia Tech will prove important, especially as the ratings of previously good teams fall. Houston is 16-4 overall and now ranked No. 21 in the AP Poll. Virginia Tech is 14-6. Both teams used to appear in ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s bracket, with Houston as a seven-seed and Virginia Tech as a 12-seed. Now, Virginia Tech is in the “First Four Out,” which means they will be top-ranked for the NIT tournament. BYU also makes an appearance in Lunardi’s bracket as a 10-seed.
Sophomore Kolby “Big Idaho” Lee shared what game was the most memorable for him.
“One of the funnest games we’ve played so far was when we were in Maui when we beat UCLA and we beat Virginia Tech,” Lee said. “In that same stretch, we played Kansas, and it was fun to play those three great teams back-to-back.”
Despite the two quad-one wins against Houston and Virginia Tech, BYU used to have another quad-one win: Utah State. However, Utah State has since fallen to a 16-6 record overall, with a 5-4 record in the Mountain West Conference. Utah State’s downgrade to a quad-two win could end up hurting BYU’s chances for a NCAA Tournament bid because the Cougars now have one less quad-one win. The Cougars need to prove that they can beat good teams, which is why the Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga games in February will be the true test.
BYU’s best chance to prove itself will come in the next month of games. The Cougars only have three more opportunities for quad-one or quad-two wins. On Jan. 25, BYU fell 82-81 to San Francisco on the road, dropping its first of five remaining chances for a higher-tier win. This loss came only two days after the Cougars claimed a quad-two, 74-60 win at Pacific.
The next opportunity for a higher-rated win in WCC play came Feb. 1 against Saint Mary’s. BYU’s first matchup with the Gaels resulted in a quad-one, 87-84 overtime loss. The Cougars were without their star player, Yoeli Childs, who leads the team with 21.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
BYU emerged the victors in round two of this matchup, winning in dramatic fashion courtesy of a TJ Haws 3-pointer with just eight seconds remaining. Haws led BYU in scoring with 23 points while also tallying five assists. Haws bucket with eight seconds remaining marked the second time this season that he has sealed a victory for BYU in the dying seconds of a game, the first coming at the buzzer against Houston on Nov. 15.
The Cougars’ last showdown with a quad-one team will be on Feb. 22 against Gonzaga. While BYU has a home-court advantage, Gonzaga is a dangerous team. The Bulldogs lead the country in scoring offense and scoring margin and are ranked in the top five of every team rating system. In NCAA NET rankings and Kenpom, the Zags rank third, while other rating systems such as BPI have the Bulldogs ranked third.
Pepperdine has also made its way into top-tier games as of Jan. 26, making this road game a quad-two opportunity for the Cougars. The Waves were previously rated as a quad-three opponent but have since moved up despite being 11-10 overall.
BYU will have to face plenty of other teams before they approach these in the top-tier. WCC teams like Santa Clara and Pacific have caused problems for teams like Saint Mary’s and San Francisco. If BYU doesn’t take care of the other teams in the league, the Cougars could miss out on the tournament.
Pope said it’s important to avoid looking over games because every game is important.
“We have to get better every single day,” Pope said. “You don’t do that by thinking about Saturday when you got Wednesday. It’s human nature to get distracted by anything. That’s what everybody is fighting all the time: the ability to stay focused. So far, these guys have proven to be really adept at being locked in.”