Alex Barcello warms up prior to BYU's matchup with Gonzaga. (BYU Photo)

For BYU men’s hoops, it’s now or never

It’s amazing how quickly things can change in sports.

Three weeks ago, BYU men’s basketball was a win away from its best start ever in conference play, had seemingly cemented its status as the West Coast Conference’s two seed while accumulating a solid tournament resume to make an invitation to the NCAA tournament all but inevitable.

Then, it all came crashing down.

Just as they’d found every possible way to win throughout the season, the Cougars suddenly couldn’t keep themselves from handing the game away at every opportunity. They dropped four straight contests for the first time in the Mark Pope era, including an absolute dagger against Pacific to stain their resume with an ugly Quad Four loss — another Pope first.

It seemed like the Cougars were doomed to never win again, with frustrations boiling and no obvious solution in sight.

Now, Pope and company have clawed back and can still conceivably control their tournament destiny.

The collapse continued well into the Feb. 10 game against Loyola Marymount, as BYU trailed by 17 in the second half in Los Angeles. Nothing went right for the Cougars, who seemed destined for a fifth straight loss.

Just as improbably as the losing skid had begun, Pope pulled a rabbit out of his hat as the Cougars willed their way to an 83-82 road overtime victory, the team’s first win in 19 days.

Season saved? Possibly so.

“The LMU game was really special,” Pope said. “To think about all the things our guys had to overcome over the past few weeks and during the course of that game, to stay with it despite everything against them and find a way to win on the road…that’s a commentary on our guys. Not just their basketball skill but their character, their toughness and their grit.”

“It’s just what we needed,” forward Seneca Knight added of the LMU win. “Everything’s on a positive note now.”

The Cougars started a new streak with a win Saturday night over Pepperdine, carried firmly on the shoulders of Alex Barcello’s 33-point outburst while draining nine of 10 3-pointers as if to shout that he would not be denied from “the big dance” this March.

Not only did the pair of wins keep BYU’s postseason hopes alive, but it provided much-needed CPR for team morale and confidence. Practices have gone from a grim, funeral feeling to “joy in the gym” once again, allowing for the energy that Pope’s squads always depend upon and feed on.

“It brings a bit of spirit and life back to the team,” forward Caleb Lohner said of winning. “Losing just sucks. Collectively as a group, it’s not great mentally for us to lose.”

If the Cougars truly are back on track, it’s come at a perfect time. BYU faces a critical road clash with Saint Mary’s this Saturday, a high-stakes contest that could make or break their NCAA Tournament hopes.

The magic number for an at-large bid in March should be around 23 total wins, which would be a lot easier of an ask heading into the WCC Tournament if the Cougars take care of business against the Gaels this week.

“This is a massive game,” Pope said. “We’re at the point of the season where we’ve just got to win games.”

While Pope said he didn’t think that Saturday was a “do or die” situation, a win over the Gaels would be a tremendous boost for BYU’s tournament bid.

The latest Bracketology projections from Joe Lunardi tabbed BYU as the last team in the bracket, meaning a Quad One victory could add enough breathing room through the conference tournament period to ensure the Cougars aren’t on the outside looking in once Selection Sunday arrives.

Are the Cougars aware of Saturday’s tournament implications?

“In the back of our minds, yeah, everybody’s thinking about that,” Lohner said. “If we just go into the game and fight like we do, the game of basketball will take care of itself.”

BYU won its first matchup with the Gaels by nine points despite hitting just one 3-pointer. The Cougars have shot 57% from the field over the past two games, though they continue to be plagued by turnovers with a combined 27 giveaways against LMU and Pepperdine.

BYU has a full week to prepare for Saint Mary’s, but more importantly, to get healthy. Fouss Traore sat out against Pepperdine with a groin injury and is questionable going forward, which would be a crushing blow to a team that desperately needed his 19 points and 12 rebounds to edge LMU a week ago. The Cougars have had plenty of injuries thus far along with the typical wear and tear of the regular season, making health “the most important thing” according to Lohner.

“At the end of the day, we just need to find a way to win with what we have,” Lohner said.

It’s been a roller-coaster season for the Cougars, and given their Quad One success, internal expectations and the fact that Barcello’s days in a BYU uniform are numbered, anything less than making the NCAA Tournament would be a failure.

Pope said the team was set to “write the greatest comeback story ever” following the losing streak, and this Saturday against Saint Mary’s directly determines how long that story will last.

The stakes are high, and the Cougars know it. Luckily, Pope lives for the excitement.

“This is what you play for,” Pope said. “This is when it gets great.”

The Cougars and Gaels tip off this Saturday at 8 p.m. MST.

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