BYU could surprise in East, gave No. 1 Zags a scare

Heading into the season, there wasn’t a lot of talk about BYU.

This was supposed to be a rebuilding season in Provo, Utah, for coach Mark Pope and his Cougars. Well, guess again.

BYU went 20-6 starting a senior guard, three transfers and a freshman. The Cougars also are getting better heading into their first NCAA Tournament since 2015.

How good? They threatened top-seeded Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tournament final last week. The Cougars built a 14-point lead and were tied with 4:19 to play before the Zags (26-0) pulled away to remain perfect with an 88-78 win.

It was the Cougars’ third straight loss to Gonzaga this season, but they have improved with each game. The latest one got them the No.6 seed in the East Region. It’s their best seed in college basketball’s showcase in almost three decades.

“We’re one of those teams where we wish we had three more months of the season because we just keep getting better,” Pope said in a telephone interview from Indianapolis on Wednesday. “That’s a credit to our guys, certainly for their commitment to try to get better every day. But we’re getting better.”

Last year, Pope’s first with the team, was the one where BYU expected to make a big run in the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars went 24-8, were ranked 18th in the final poll and had three dynamic players in Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson and T.J. Haws. The pandemic ended the season and crushed their hopes.

When the big three decided to go pro, it left guard Alex Barcello, a transfer from Arizona, as the main cog returning.

Pope got him some help. Guard Brandon Averette, who played two seasons at Oklahoma State and another at Utah Valley, and 7-foot-3 forward Matt Haarms, who played three years at Purdue, arrived as graduate transfers. Gideon George of Nigeria transferred from New Mexico JC, while freshman forward Caleb Lohner, whose father played at BYU, fit right in.

“We had a bunch of new faces, so we had to build chemistry pretty fast,” Barcello said. “There were a lot of hard days, some some ups and downs. But just it really started with this coaching staff. And I think the guys really just took control and came together as one.”

The Cougars, who hit 233 3-pointers and averaged 78.7 points, can play either up-tempo or slow down with their size. They might be just as good on defense.

BYU faces no small task in the East, whose top four seeds are Michigan, Alabama, Texas and Florida State. The Cougars open Saturday night against the winner of the play-in game between the two No. 11 seeds, UCLA and Michigan State.

If they get past that game and the favorites win out, they could conceivably play Texas, Alabama and Michigan in their road to the Final Four.

“We’ve definitely grown a lot each time we played the Zags throughout our season,” said Barcello, who leads BYU with a 15.9 point scoring average. “But I think we’re really prepared. You know, we want to play the best. So looking at the teams that are in our region in this tournament, we’re excited, we’re ready, motivated and we want to go prove who we are.”

Pope knows what it means to get to the Final Four. He was part of Kentucky’s title team in 1996, beating Syracuse in the championship game at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

He doesn’t bring it up much with his team. He talks about taking advantage of the rare opportunity to make a mark in this event.

“You know, we actually love this ‘One Shining Moment’ song,” Pope said. “To leave a mark on this tournament that will be frozen in time forever, that is an incredible opportunity that we’re so hungry to try and take advantage of it. We spend a lot of time talking about how special this event is. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world, and we’re going to be a part of it.”

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More AP college basketball coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and updated bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket

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