5 Ways BYU Basketball Can Ensure an NCAA Tournament Berth
BYU closed its season sweep of the Pepperdine Waves on Saturday with a 38-point victory, 86-48. The lopsided victory over the hapless Waves represented BYU's largest winning margin this season.
BYU regained its three-point stroke by hitting more three-pointers (12) than it did during the previous three games combined. In fact, the Cougars had made just 17 total three-pointers during the previous six games.
BYU will need to maintain its touch from outside while still receiving consistent output from the productive frontcourt comprised of senior Noah Hartsock (17.3 PPG, 84.7 FT%) and junior Brandon Davies (14.4 PPG, 8.0 RPG) to close out the 2011-12 season with a bid to the NCAA tournament.
But what does BYU need to do between now and Selection Sunday to become a lock for a sixth consecutive bid to the Big Dance?
No. 1: Win the West Coast Conference Tournament
The surest way for BYU to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday is to win the West Coast Conference tournament.
Surprisingly, Dave Rose was never able to lead his BYU team to a Mountain West Conference postseason conference title in six attempts.
This year, the path to the WCC Championship will likely include matchups against both Gonzaga and St. Mary's.
In order to win the WCC tournament, the Cougars will need a combination of three to four consistent double-digit scoring options and strong perimeter defense.
No. 2: Make the West Coast Conference Championship Game
Because of the irregular format of the West Coast Conference tournament, the top-two regular season seeds in the WCC will automatically receive a spot in the semifinals.
BYU will have the opportunity to ensure a spot in the semifinals by winning its four remaining regular season games, including a road contest at Gonzaga on February 23.
If BYU wins its semifinal matchup (likely against Gonzaga), it would give BYU yet another chip in its corner, as BYU would have won at least two out of three games against the 'Zags this season.
More importantly, it would mean that the Cougars would have played at least one game during "Championship Week" leading up to Selection Sunday.
No. 3: Win at Gonzaga on February 23
NCAA teams have historically needed to prove that they can go on the road and beat quality basketball teams.
BYU does not have one of those signature road wins this season. (And no, a one-point win at a lowly ACC team does not count in the minds of the Selection Committee.) A win at Gonzaga would strengthen BYU's case for an NCAA bid.
BYU will need to bring its stingy defense to Spokane if it wants to enjoy a similar result to the 83-73 victory over the 'Zags in Provo on February 2. In that game, BYU held Gonzaga to 15.8% from three-point range and had 14 steals leading to 10 key fast-break points.
If BYU wins at Gonzaga and doesn't slip up against San Francisco, Santa Clara or Portland, then, the Cougars will most assuredly be dancing in March.
No. 4: Don't Lose to Anyone Besides the 'Zags or the Gaels
BYU's tournament resume is already marred by a 14-point home loss to WCC foe Loyola Marymount, and another loss to a team not named Gonzaga or Saint Mary's may result in a prompt invitation to the NIT.
BYU beat San Francisco, Santa Clara and Portland by an average margin of 21 points during the first round of West Coast Conference regular season play. However, BYU fans shouldn't feel too confident as San Francisco, in particular, is playing much better than when the Cougars faced the Dons in January.
After his team's 25-point loss to BYU on January 7, San Francisco head coach Rex Walters said he "set basketball back 100 years trying to walk it up" against BYU. The Dons have come back to the future, as they have since averaged over 77 points per game in WCC play.
Expect Walters and the Dons to be ready to exact some revenge against the Cougars and try to ruin BYU's chances at an at-large bid on Thursday night.
No. 5: Root Against Cinderella
It happens every year—a lower-seeded team makes a run through the conference tournament and steals an NCAA tournament bid when they would not have secured an at-large bid otherwise.
BYU needs the No. 1 seeds from these likely one-bid conferences to secure the automatic bid by winning the conference tournament. This way, there will be minimal competition for BYU to secure an at-large bid, if necessary.
If BYU does not win the WCC tournament, the Cougars and the rest of the "bubble teams" across the country will be cheering on teams such as Murray State (Ohio Valley), Harvard (Ivy), Middle Tennessee State (Sun Belt) and Nevada (WAC) to lock down the automatic bids prior to Selection Sunday so there will be as many spots as possible for the Selection Committee to fill.
However, BYU has plenty of opportunities in the coming weeks to forge its own path to the NCAA tournament and not be at the mercy of Cinderella.
Will Coach Rose and the Cougars be able to do it?