Wednesday, April 8, 2020

BYU’s NCAA tournament chances bolstered after win over Santa Clara sets the stage for No. 2 Gonzaga

BYU’s path to the NCAA tournament seems less like a dream and more like reality after it’s win over Santa Clara on Feb. 20.

With a 22-7 overall record — and 11-3 in WCC play — the Cougars are making a run for the tourney, with only one top-tiered game left on the schedule before the WCC Tournament. As of Feb. 17, BYU made its first appearance in the AP Poll since 2011, falling in at No. 23.

BYU skipped past Santa Clara on Feb. 20 with a 85-75 victory at the Marriott Center, further solidifying its NCAA tournament hopes. BYU only converted on three of its 13 3-point attempts, with Yoeli Childs and Kolby Lee being the lone players to find the basket from deep. This contrasted the majority of BYU’s wins this season, with much of the Cougars NCAA resume being centered around being the best 3-point shooting team in the country. BYU found a way to win even without converting on baskets from deep. BYU’s big-three of TJ Haws, Jake Toolson and Childs led the way for the Cougars, notching 70 of BYU’s 85 total points.

On Feb. 22, No. 23 BYU will host No. 2 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center, seeking to give the Zags their second loss this season. This is BYU’s last regular-season opportunity for a quad-one win. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives BYU a 38% chance to win despite a home-court advantage. BYU will most likely still make the tourney, even with a loss to Gonzaga.

BYU basketball’s Yoeli Childs fields questions from Spencer Linton following BYU’s win over San Francisco. (Preston Crawley)

Bleacher Report posted an article where it labeled BYU as the No. 1 Cinderella Team for March Madness in the 2019-20 season. There is a lot of uncertainty hovering around BYU, mostly because BYU played 13 games without its star player Yoeli Childs. Included in those 13 games were losses to No. 4 San Diego State, No. 3 Kansas, No. 2 Gonzaga and a heartbreaking 87-84 overtime loss to Saint Mary’s.

Now back on the court, Childs leads the team with 20.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. On Feb. 8, Childs led BYU to a win over San Francisco with 32 points, one point shy of his career-high in a game.

Two days before the San Francisco game, ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla commented on BYU’s recent offensive performance with Childs, saying, “You do not want to see them in your bracket.”

As of Feb. 20, BYU is No. 1 in the nation in three-point shooting, averaging 42.2% on the season. WCC rival Saint Mary’s is behind in third, averaging 40.7%. The Cougars are also ranked No. 3 in field goal percentage, averaging 50.1% from the field. WCC leader Gonzaga is ranked No. 2, making 51.6% of its shots from the field on average.

The Bleacher Report article backs up BYU’s offensive numbers, claiming that the Cougars are “lethal” from the field. According to the article, seven players make, on average, at least one three per game. However great BYU’s offense is, the article also made a point to reference BYU’s weakness: manufacturing points.

The article points out BYU’s poor offensive rebounding output, along with its inability to get to the free-throw line. In all of the NCAA’s 350 teams, BYU falls at No. 347 for offensive rebounds per game with 6.36. The top teams all have 13 or more per game.

The BYU ROC section celebrates during BYU’s thriller against Saint Mary’s on Feb. 1 in the Marriott Center. (Preston Crawley)

BYU’s defense also lacks in comparison to its offense. The Cougars are ranked No. 107 in the country for defensive rebounds per game with 26.46. To compare, Gonzaga is ranked No. 9 with 29.07. BYU’s scoring defense also falls short at No. 155 in the country, allowing 68.6 points per game.

Yet even with BYU’s mediocre defense and lack of offensive rebounding, the Cougars are well on their way to NCAA Tournament, putting up better offensive numbers than the Jimmer era. In the 2010-11 season, BYU went 32-5 overall and made it to the Sweet Sixteen in the tournament before falling to Florida. That season was the furthest BYU has gone in the tourney this century.

Compared to the 2010-11 season, BYU’s offensive output is now leagues higher. BYU basketball radio analyst Greg Wrubell tweeted the differences between the two seasons, showing how this season is special for the Cougars. BYU is in the top five in the country for three-point field goal percentage, field goal efficiency and offensive efficiency. In the 2010-11 season, BYU was No. 86 in three-point percentage, No. 59 in field goal efficiency and No. 11 in offensive efficiency.

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi still has BYU as a No. 6 seed going into the first round of the tournament. BYU is predicted to play No. 11 seed Cincinnati in St. Louis. With BYU’s better-than-average offensive numbers, the Cougars could potentially be the trap game for many of the higher seeds.

Head coach Mark Pope expressed his happiness for his team’s success.

“I just feel so happy for these guys,” Pope said. “They have been fighting for this for a long time. The standard here is so high. They’ve won a lot of games here, but they’ve been frustrated in being able to get to where they want to go at the end of the day.”

The Cougars are currently on a six-game win streak, residing at second place in the WCC standings. BYU sits behind the Zags, who are No. 2 in the country, and in front of Saint Mary’s. If BYU maintains this ranking, it will secure the No. 2 seed in the WCC tournament and receive an automatic bye to the semifinal game.

Alex Barcello lays the ball in during BYU basketball’s win over Pepperdine. (Addie Blacker)

Yet junior transfer Alex Barcello said that now is not the time to reminisce on past games.

“We can’t take a break,” Barcello said. “We’re coming towards the end of the season and obviously we have a set goal in mind of getting to the tournament and making a run. We just have to quickly move on.”

And with the recent addition of 6-foot-9-inch Gavin Baxter, BYU is expected to make a big run in the post-season. Baxter missed most of the season due to shoulder injury but made his return on Feb. 8 versus San Francisco to participate in the Cougars’ historic season. In 2018-19, he averaged 4.7 points and 3.1 rebounds a game for BYU.

Selection Sunday for March Madness is on Mar. 15, but the Cougars will have to compete in the WCC tournament before they begin preparation for the NCAA tournament. The WCC tournament will begin Mar. 5 and continue to Mar. 10, where BYU will most likely meet Saint Mary’s in the tournament semi-finals. With a win, BYU would likely see Gonzaga in the finals.

Pope said that this BYU team is special and is wasting no time trying to accomplish its goals.

“We don’t have time to waste,” Pope said. “We have to get so much better, and we don’t have a lot of time. So, we can’t waste opportunities. These guys have a chance to go fight every single game with everything they have. It’s what we’re chasing.”

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