It was a Cinderella run for the ages, but the Cougars ultimately fell short to the heavy favorite North Carolina Tar Heels in the championship round of this year’s NCAA tournament action.
Only this tournament wasn’t played out on the hardwood; it was battled in the internet realm.
The Fox Sports college hoops “Ultimate Fan Bracket” Twitter tournament aimed to fill part of the void left by the cancellation of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It did so with a unique twist — Twitter users voted for each matchup in order to determine which program had the best fans in the country. The main incentive of the competition was Fox Sport’s pledge to put a billboard in favor of the winning school in the city of their rival.
The most-followed Twitter account from every major conference received an automatic bid in the bracket, with the next 32 most-followed programs gaining selection as at-large bids. The “first four in” teams were the best teams from this season who weren’t in the bracket already, which was how BYU fit into the equation.
BYU entered the competition as a 10 seed, snatching “upset” victories over No. 7 Missouri, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 4 Tennessee and No. 1 Indiana. The Cougars also came out on top after a neck-and-neck, verbally-violent showing against similar mid-major and No. 11 Dayton.
“BYU and Dayton are definitely leading the trash talk,” remarked Fox Sports college hoops personality Mark Titus in a conversation with the Universe concerning the banter and heckling between fanbases in the tournament. “Anytime you are sure of what you are in this world, people don’t like it… that’s certainly true with BYU fans. There’s a lot of BYU fans everywhere.”
Cougar fans flocked to the polls, racking up more than 230,000 total votes throughout the tournament to lead the contest. In the final round against No. 1 UNC — six-time national champions and alma mater to NBA legends like Michael Jordan and Vince Carter — BYU trailed by as much as 14 percentage points and led by as many as four before losing seemingly at the buzzer by a handful of loose votes.
While there won’t be a BYU billboard up in Salt Lake, the tournament was a fun distraction from the COVID-19 pandemic and a chance for the Cougars to gain even further exposure as a national force thanks to the fans. Titus, a teammate of Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley at Ohio State, gave plenty of praise to head coach Mark Pope for launching BYU to national relevancy again.
“(Pope) has been a revelation for me. It’s fun watching BYU and his progression,” Titus said. “I had asked him about coaching at BYU and dealing with (missions). No other coach in college basketball recruits a kid and then dismisses him for two years. No part of him had a negative viewpoint on it. He strikes me as a player’s coach to the tenth degree. I want to play for him, he’s a guy that gets it.”