Both the NCAA tournament and the Mountain West Conference tournament (really the UNLV Invitational) have been unkind to the Brigham Young University Cougars. Tournament play requires intangibles that BYU has never possessed: consistent shooting, strong defense, poise, and athleticism.
UNLV has shined in recent years because of the home court advantage. Also because they are athletic, play strong defense and have had a sufficient amount of poise to pull out wins.
The team that makes stops in the MWC tournament and in the NCAA tournament usually gets the W.
Recent wins over UTEP, UNLV, and Arizona have some Cougar fans saving money to purchase Sweet 16 tickets.
Is this premature?
Will BYU fizzle in tournament play as it has recently?
A quick glance at the recent wins can show both strengths and weaknesses in the Cougars game.
The win at home against UNLV was an eye opener for BYU. BYU shot horribly, connecting on only 37 percent of their shots. Their defense had as many holes as Swiss cheese for much of the game. The seemingly biggest deficiency was BYU's lack of athleticism.
Watching the game in person, it was shocking how much faster UNLV players were. UNLV players drove through the lane with ease. Almost every BYU player seemed stationary on defense when a UNLV player put the ball on the hardwood.
The BYU faithful in the stands seemed nervous. We had a slim lead and it felt like BYU was losing.
But BYU shined in a few areas. In the last 5:55 of the game BYU did not allow a single field goal. They played poor one-on-one defense still, but their team defense stepped up and frustrated UNLV.
UNLV hoisted more than a few ill-advised shots.
BYU, despite poor shooting and far slower feet, played with poise. They played with intelligence. They forced UNLV into making poor shots while keeping the poise that can win in March.
BYU beat UNLV because they made better choices and didn't panic.
Then, without high scoring Jimmer Fredette, BYU hit the road to take on the University of Texas-El Paso. UTEP's strengths would seemingly shine a spotlight on BYU's weaknesses. They have strong interior play, highlighted by Derrick Caracter's big body and fast feet for such a large player.
And what of that athleticism? Seemingly every Miner could split two defenders and leave BYU players watching. It seemed like an inevitable trap game for BYU.
Yet BYU left El Paso victorious. And while their shots were falling far more consistently in against UTEP than against UNLV, BYU really shined when the pressure was the greatest. BYU, once again, played with poise, even on a hostile court without their playmaker.
Tyler Haws played like a veteran and Brandon Davies showed low post moves that BYU hasn't possessed in years. BYU won because they were calm when they lost leads and let the game come to them.
However, the question remains, how will BYU do in the MWC tournament and the NCAA tournament?
The season is probably too young to reveal much of an answer. There are many more tests ahead that will really show if BYU can maintain defensive intensity and continue to get stops at the end of games against far more athletic teams.
What, really, is the DNA of a team that goes deep in a tournament?
When BYU seems so poised at the end of games and gets defensive stops when it needs to you start to think they can go deep into March. But the lack of athleticism and sometimes streaky shooting raise a few eyebrows.
When March comes around these intriguing questions will be answered.
What strengths will carry the day, and what weaknesses will lead to disaster? BYU needs the MWC tournament crown to get a high seed in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe a MWC tournament crown and a high seed will finally get them a few wins in the NCAA tournament. Maybe.
Or maybe it will be another quick first round exit.
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