BYU basketball: No. 19 Cougars are being called a ‘lock’ for the NCAA Tournament in some circles, but coach Mark Pope and company say they are taking nothing for granted

BYU basketball: No. 19 Cougars are being called a ‘lock’ for the NCAA Tournament in some circles, but coach Mark Pope and company say they are taking nothing for granted

An ESPN college basketball insider — John Gasaway — wrote Sunday that the BYU Cougars are one of five “locks” from the Big 12 for the NCAA Tournament next month, along with Houston, Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor.

He noted that Texas Tech, TCU, Oklahoma and Texas “should be in” the Big Dance and that Cincinnati and Kansas State “have work to do” before Selection Sunday on March 17.

“I mean, what a team, my gosh. Playing (UCF) is like a slugfest. They are doing an unbelievable job … moving into the Big 12. They have had huge wins. They are ridiculously physical and athletic. So it is going to be an all-out war, just like every game is in this league.” — BYU basketball coach Mark Pope

For BYU fans, that’s pretty heady stuff, considering that the Cougars were picked to finish 13th in the league back in October at the Big 12 basketball media days in Kansas City.

But after BYU defeated Kansas State 72-66 Saturday at the Marriott Center, holding on for the narrow win after leading by as many as 17 midway through the second half, coach Mark Pope and a few of his players said there’s no time to get complacent.

“You can’t (relax) for one second in this league,” Pope said.

That remains true this week, even though there are two fairly winnable games on the docket, beginning Tuesday night when the Cougars (5-5, 17-6) play host to mercurial UCF (4-6, 13-9) at the Marriott Center. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. MST and the rematch of BYU’s 63-58 win in Orlando on Jan. 13 will be available on ESPN+.

If the Cougars win, they will have a chance for their first-ever three-game winning streak in Big 12 play on Saturday at last-place Oklahoma State (2-9, 10-14), which should be rested and ready because the Cowboys have a midweek bye.

“I mean, what a team, my gosh. Playing (UCF) is like a slugfest,” Pope said Saturday night. “They are doing an unbelievable job … moving into the Big 12. They have had huge wins. They are ridiculously physical and athletic. So it is going to be an all-out war, just like every game is in this league.”

UCF fell 66-59 at Texas Tech on Saturday, despite guard Jaylin Sellers scoring 14 points to surpass the 1,000-career point mark.

The Knights, who will be playing in Provo for the first time in school history, own wins over Kansas, Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma in league play. They could be without 7-footer Ibrahima Diallo, who missed the Tech game with a knee injury.

Diallo had 11 points, 19 rebounds and two blocked shots in the game in Orlando, and leads the Big 12 with 41 blocked shots. 

Six days after a disheartening 82-66 loss at unranked Oklahoma and two days after holding on to beat Kansas State, BYU moved up from No. 21 to No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Cougars have been ranked 12 times this season, the fifth-most in a BYU season ever, according to BYU sports information. They were ranked a program-high 19 times during the 2010-11 season, Jimmer Fredette’s senior year.

That BYU continues to get so much respect from the national pollsters, and the computers, is a testament to the quality of the Big 12. BYU is 5-5 in league play for the third-straight year, but that kind of record in the WCC didn’t have it even close to sniffing a national ranking.

Some so-called national college basketball experts have suggested that BYU and other Big 12 teams “gamed the system” by loading up on easy teams in nonconference games and winning those games by as many points possible, but Pope wasn’t buying that notion when he was asked about it last Thursday.

“I think those people are crazy. We get to live it every day. This league is pretty extraordinary, and I think the teams are pretty well-tested and proven. It is pretty awesome,” he said. “… Maybe I shouldn’t say ‘crazy,’ because people might take that too seriously. Come to the games. Be a part of the deal. It is really pretty extraordinary.”

That the Cougars are No. 8 in the NET rankings, No. 12 in Kenpom.com, is also quite extraordinary, given that this is pretty much the same team it was last year. Charlotte transfer Aly Khalifa is the only “new” contributor.

“It has been super fun to just be around the guys and talk about it,” senior guard Spencer Johnson said of how different the Big 12 is compared to the WCC. “These teams are really good, really athletic. Players are smart. There is a big difference.”

Johnson said BYU is getting used to facing guys who were “top 50, top 25 coming out of high school,” and teams “that are top 10 teams” in the country.

“It is fun to talk about that together as a group and figure out how we are going to go compete against them and how we are going to beat them,” Johnson said. “It has been super awesome.”

Why are the Cougars getting so close to being a lock for the NCAA Tournament?

For starters, they have no bad losses. They are 3-5 in Quadrant 1 games and 2-1 in Quad 2 games. They are a combined 12-0 in Quad 3 and Quad 4 games.

Central Florida is No. 66 in the NET rankings, with a 3-6 record in Quad 1 games. Tuesday’s game is a Quad 1 opportunity for the Knights.

For BYU, it is a chance to get one step closer to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2021, and start playing for as favorable a seed as possible. One reasonable goal is a No. 5 or No. 6 seed and opportunity to play in a first-round game in Salt Lake City.

“It’s exciting,” Johnson said. “Every game is absolutely huge.”

BYU coach Mark Pope, center, talks with one of his players during a game against Kansas State, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Provo, Utah. Says Pope of playing UCF on Tuesday, “It is going to be an all-out war, just like every game is in this league.”

Isaac Hale, Associated Press

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