Blue Blood: Backs against the wall for BYU in chase for NCAA Tourney bid

COMMENTARY — I hate the “P” word, but let’s be realistic here: It might be time to panic for BYU basketball fans.

Under Dave Rose, the Cougars have never won fewer than 20 games in a season and have become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament. And while the streak of 20-win seasons will likely continue (BYU is 15-7 with nine games left, plus the WCC Tourney), it’s starting to look like the only way the Cougars will get into the NCAA Tournament is if they purchase tickets.

byu logo2I’m no Bracketologist, by ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi is and he’s already declaring the West Coast Conference to be a one-bid conference. Interestingly enough, he also has Gonzaga as a No. 1-seed. How a team can participate in fierce competition with its conference mates, emerge scarred but victorious and have none of its fellow WCC teams invited is beyond me, but that’s probably the way it’s going to shake out.

But even if the WCC were to get two bids, the second one would likely go to Saint Mary’s, which is 16-4 and has just one conference loss (to Gonzaga). BYU just can’t expect any at-large love with losses to teams like San Diego (who has a losing record) and Pepperdine (which is 11-8 and has lost to such powerhouses as IUPUI and San Francisco).

No one is pointing fingers here. BYU has a fun and dynamic team. But the weaknesses of this Cougar squad are glaring. BYU struggles to stop its opponents, the Cougars have difficulty clearing defensive rebounds and, perhaps most importantly, they just can’t finish games.

As far as the defense, we love to tout the high-scoring of BYU, but the Cougars are ranked 331st in the NCAA in defense. I didn’t even know there were 331 teams (there are actually 351, so at least the Cougars are not the worst defensive team). In the inexcusable loss to San Diego, the Toreros repeatedly found open shots in the lane and had an embarrassing number of uncontested dunks.

Nate Austin
Nate Austin

To be sure, losing Nate Austin (torn hamstring) has hurt. He was not a shot-blocker, but he was a shot-changer, plus he was incredibly skilled at taking a charge in the lane. I can’t even remember the last time a BYU player took a charge.

It’s hard to blame BYU’s current post players. Luke Worthington is just a sophomore with limited skills and Corbin Kaufusi is skilled. but incredibly raw as a true freshman. Same goes for Isaac Nielsen. And none of those guys present much of a challenge to the conference’s talented big men.

Of course, things may be different if BYU was better at closing out games. Collinsworth missed a fairly easy shot that would have probably forced overtime against San Diego. And Haws, bless his heart (my Mom used to say that when someone unintentionally, but habitually, did something wrong), has missed a whole lowlight reel of potential game-changers this season (remember San Diego State, Purdue, Pepperdine, Gonzaga and Utah).

Haws will go down into BYU history as one of the all-time great Cougars, and rightfully so. But as my friend and colleague Dick Harmon recently wrote, making those shots is Haws’ “talent, heritage and destiny.”

But the past is the past and there’s nothing BYU can do about it now. The only way the Cougars can avoid college hoops Purgatory (the NIT) is to get hot. Now.

Haws needs to hit those shots. The big guys need to mature. The shooters need to, well, shoot.

Tyler Haws | Photo courtesy BYU Athletics
Tyler Haws | Photo courtesy BYU Athletics

If BYU were to win out in the regular season, it would make them 24-7 going into the WCC Tourney. The Cougars would still likely be a No. 3-seed in the tourney, which means a quarterfinal game against a No. 6-seed and then a semifinal against Saint Mary’s. That means a 26-7 record going into the WCC Championship game (assuming BYU keeps winning). Would that be enough to get them into the Big Dance if they were to lose the WCC title game?

That’s a good question. I think it would be (all this is operating under the pretense that BYU beats Gonzaga in Spokane in the last regular-season game, which is an iffy proposition, at best).

I would say yes, that would be enough. If BYU wins out in the regular season and makes it to the WCC title game, the Cougars would be in the NCAA Tourney.

But I also believe one more loss in the next four weeks may just kill any NCAA hopes (except, of course, the automatic bid if they win the WCC Tourney). And winning out won’t be any easy task, considering the Cougars have games at Pepperdine and Gonzaga and a home battle vs. Saint Mary’s.

BYU will try to get that streak going tonight at home against San Francisco (9 p.m.) and Saturday in the Marriott Center against Santa Clara (7 p.m.).

It’s too bad it’s come down to this, but the rest of the year may just be do-or-die for BYU.

Blue Blood is a weekly column following BYU basketball and is written by STGNews sports editor Andy Griffin. The opinions expressed are his and not necessarily those of St. George News.

Email: sports@stgnews.com

Twitter: @oldschoolag

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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