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Can BYU Avoid Selection Sunday Jitters?

6 March 2014 Brett Richins
WCC Player of the Year Tyler Haws leads BYU in its drive to a conference tournament title. (BYU Photo)

WCC Player of the Year Tyler Haws leads BYU in its drive to a conference tournament title. (BYU Photo)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada — With the West Coast Conference basketball tournament getting under way today, the bubble-dwelling BYU Cougars have a chance to put to bed all the worry and speculation about their chances of making the NCCA tournament as an at-large entry by simply winning the WCC tournament title.

Led by conference MVP Tyler Haws and first-team all-conference selection Kyle Collinsworth, BYU has won four straight games and eight of the last nine to work itself back into at-large consideration.

Most bracketologists have the Cougars in the field of 68, but their position is tenuous. A loss in the first two rounds of the WCC tournament could spell doom for their chances to go dancing this year.

Despite the four-game winning streak, BYU has been on a roller coaster ride recently in Joe Lunardi’s bracket on ESPN, going from one of the last four teams receiving a bye in the first round a few days ago as a No. 11 seed, then slipping to one of the last four in the tournament on Tuesday as a 12th seed, before being restored today to a No. 11 seed and again listed as a team to receive a first-round bye.

The Cougars certainly have the talent to run the table in Vegas over the next few days and claim the tournament championship and the accompanying automatic bid to the NCAA tourney that goes with it. In addition to the much-deserved post-season accolades for Haws and Collinsworth, center Eric Mika was also named to the conference’s all-freshman squad while guard Matt Carlino was the league’s best player off the bench and received honorable mention honors.

The conference tournament bracket also sets up nicely with BYU finding itself on the opposite side of the bracket from traditional conference powers Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. The Cougars won’t seen either the No 1 seed Zags or the fourth-seeded Gaels unless its in Tuesday night’s championship game, and both of them are more vulnerable than the first during two years of BYU’s membership in the WCC.

First things first, though.

Dave Rose’s squad must take care of business on Saturday against the winner of tonight’s game between Portland and Loyola-Marymount. The Pilots defeated BYU in triple overtime at Portland, while the Cougars were embarrassed 87-76 in the first conference game of the year by an LMU team that ended up finishing in last place in the conference.

Haws, Collinsworth and company were able to exact revenge for those loses later in the season at the Marriott Center by destroying LMU 91-68 and thumping Portland 89-72. But as the Cougars have learned in their first three seasons in the bi-polar WCC, any team in the league can get hot and pull the upset. In addition to the losses to Portland and Loyola-Marymount this year, BYU also dropped decisions to Pepperdine and Pacific.

Those bad losses, combined with the inability to close out games against ranked opponents when they had the opportunity are the reasons BYU finds itself on the bubble. The Cougars squandered a 12-point lead at home against against No. 16 Iowa State before falling to the Cyclones 90-88. At then No. 11 Oregon, BYU held a 7-point lead on the Ducks with less than four minutes to go, but couldn’t hold on as Oregon tied the game in regulation and then won the game in overtime 100-96.

If they had held on to win those two games, the Cougars would probably be safe heading into the WCC tournament, even despite the handful of bad losses in conference. As it is, there is still plenty of work left for them to do between Saturday afternoon and Tuesday night. Even a loss in the championship game would leave them vulnerable and squirming on Selection Sunday.

Unfortunately, winning conference tournaments hasn’t exactly been BYU’s forte over the years. In fact, during the current nine-year era under Rose, the Cougars have failed to win a single tournament title in either the Mountain West Conference or the WCC. Last season, they were bounced unceremoniously in their first game of the WCC tourney 72-69 by San Diego.

Even during the hey day of Jimmer, BYU couldn’t climb the mountain and win the MWC tournament, losing to San Diego State in the finals in 2011 and falling to UNLV in the semis in 2010.

In fact, as the Cougars get ready to take the court this weekend, they will be looking to win the program’s first conference tournament title since knocking off New Mexico 69-65 to win the 2001 MWC post-season championship. If they fail in their quest to win a conference tournament championship this year, Selection Sunday could be a very nerve-wracking day.

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