Wednesday, October 21, 2020

What could have been — BYU men’s basketball

BYU men’s basketball was officially a lock in the NCAA tournament despite finishing its season in a last-second 51-50 loss to rival Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament semifinals on Mar. 9.

The Cougars’ loss to Saint Mary’s came as a shock to many fans, as the Cougars are coming off a historic season where they finished No. 2 in the WCC and ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll. But to other fans, the loss to the Gaels may not have been as surprising because of BYU’s record against them in the regular season.

BYU’s first matchup against Saint Mary’s resulted in an 87-84 overtime loss in California, the Cougars’ second conference game of the season. This loss came without the help of senior Yoeli Childs, who suffered an finger dislocation in practice a few days before. Childs leads the team with 22.2 points per game, and an average of 8.9 rebounds to lead the Cougars.

The second matchup was different. Saint Mary’s was coming to the Marriott Center, and BYU was looking for revenge. While the Cougars had Childs on the floor this time around, the Gaels still kept the game close with help from star players Jordan Ford and Malik Fitts. Saint Mary’s forward Fitts led with 29 points and 8 rebounds, shooting 11 for 15 from the field and 4 for 6 from behind the arc. BYU head coach Mark Pope said despite efforts to switch around the defense, Fitts was unstoppable.

Saint Mary’s lights out shooting still wasn’t enough to beat the Cougars, who pulled out the 81-79 victory after senior TJ Haws sunk a deep three with only nine seconds left on the clock. Haws led the Cougars with 23 points, shooting nine for 15 from the field and three for six from three.

Yet the WCC tournament performance from both teams was more than unexpected. Saint Mary’s may have won the game, but based on the stat sheet, the game could’ve gone either way. BYU shot 36.2% from the field and 38.9% from three, a stark contrast from its season average 50.0% field goal percentage and nationally-ranked No. 1 42.2% three-point shooting. Childs carried BYU with 23 points, while Haws and senior Jake Toolson combined for 11 points. Both Toolson and Haws average 15.2 and 14.0 points per game, respectively.

While BYU prepared for its first NCAA tournament berth since the 2015 season, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the sports world. The NCAA tournament was cancelled as a result of consultation with Center of Disease Control experts. This cancellation came after the NBA suspended league play indefinitely when Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus before tip-off against the Oklahoma City Thunder, while his teammate, Donovan Mitchell, tested positive the next day. Many different leagues — including MLB, NHL, MLS and more —have either cancelled or suspended league play.

Fans don’t know for sure what splash BYU would’ve made in the tournament, but here’s what some analysts had to say.

Jay Bilas, ESPN bracketologist: Despite BYU’s late-game fall to conference rival Saint Mary’s, Bilas still has the Cougars at No. 14 in his power index going into Selection Sunday. Bilas acknowledges Childs’ early-season nine-game absence due to NCAA suspension and likes what he’s seen since Childs’ return. Aiding Childs is Toolson, who Bilas says is “one of the best shot-making guards and scorers.” Bilas adds that with Haws also in the mix, BYU’s constantly moving offense makes the Cougars hard to guard. He concludes with one final statement: “BYU is built for March.”

Joe Lunardi, ESPN Bracketologist: Lunardi is one of the biggest names in March when regular seasons come to an end and March Madness begins to gain its momentum. His bracket projections and updates are one of the most popular among bracketologists. Lunardi joined BYUtv’s Sports Nation show on March 5 to talk about BYU’s seeding and expectations come tourney time. The WCC tournament was still looming at that time, but Lunardi said the outcome wouldn’t severely affect BYU’s seeding and placement in the tournament. BYU would end up as a No. 4 seed in the best case scenario, presuming it won the WCC tournament.

But the worst case scenario isn’t much different, as BYU would remain a projected No. 6 seed if it failed to win in the tournament. Lunardi said that if someone were to upset Saint Mary’s in the quarterfinals, the story would be different. Since Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga were BYU’s only possible opponents heading into the semifinals, Lunardi said BYU couldn’t take a bad loss.

Keegan Pope, Bleacher Report: Pope listed BYU as one of the NCAA’s most underrated teams going into March Madness. But how can BYU be underrated as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed? He refers back to when BYU beat Gonzaga in the Marriott Center in a shocking 91-78 win over the conference rival. Pope wasn’t surprised when this happened, as BYU put its No. 1 ranked three-point shooting on display for all to see.

Keegan Pope also compared the 2020 BYU team to that of the 2011 season, when Jimmer led his team to a Sweet 16, one of the most historic BYU teams in program history. He then pointed out that BYU has an entire team that shoots over 42% from beyond the arc, not just a single player. “If BYU can get hot and maintain that for a few games in the Big Dance, look out.”

David Cobb, CBS Sports analyst: After the “One Shining Moment” video surfaced and the internet highlighted the biggest games and plays of the year, Cobb couldn’t help but think that BYU would have been included if it were given the opportunity to make its long awaited NCAA tournament debut. “Can you imagine the type of play that BYU head coach Mark Pope would have gotten as he led the Cougars to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2011?” Cobb asked.

Sportsline made a simulation using CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm’s picks and projections. While Cobb said March Madness is often random and contributes to upsets and other things that makes March great, the simulation still revealed Cinderella teams and captured some of the biggest storylines that could have made this season one to remember. The simulation had BYU as a No. 6 seed beating No. 3 Seton Hall to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2011.

BYU finished its season ranked No. 14 in the AP Poll and an average 5.53 seed out of 90 different brackets, according to Bracket Matrix. Fans of basketball took to Twitter to ask the NCAA to release the bracket of 64 teams despite the March Madness cancellation so teams would know if their hard work paid off, but the NCAA announced that it would not release the bracket, which means BYU won’t know for sure what the seed would’ve been.

Coach Pope recently acknowledged the cancellations, and while sad, he said his team would keep moving forward like they always have.

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