COMMENTARY – Most coaches will never call a game a must-win. It’s just not done. After all, if you tell your team that it’s a must-win game, and then you lose, well, there’s nowhere to go from there.
BYU head coach Dave Rose has been around the block a few times and he would never paint his team into a corner like that. So I’ll say it: BYU faces must-win games this week to open West Coast Conference play. The Cougars host Portland (6-7) Thursday night at 7 p.m. and Saint Mary’s (11-2) Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.
Here’s why these are must-win games: It’s pretty much common knowledge that to make the NCAA Tournament as a WCC team, BYU will have to either win the regular season or win the postseason conference tournament. A second-place finish in either would put the Cougars squarely on the NCAA bubble.
The WCC typically gets two bids into the tourney, though sometimes it’s just one and on occasion a third team gets invited. Realistically, winning the conference (or the conference tourney) is the only guarantee the Cougars have of getting into the Big Dance.
Of course, the big problem with that is the dominance of the Gonzaga Bulldogs. The Mark Few-led Zags, have won the WCC regular season crown four straight years and 15 of the last 16 seasons. During that stretch (since 2000), Gonzaga has gone an amazing 217-23 in the WCC, a winning ratio of 90.4 percent. In the past 16 years, the Bulldogs have gone undefeated in conference play four times and lost just one conference game six times.
Yes Gonzaga, which finished second on the nation last year, looks loaded once again. And the Bulldogs are picked to finish second in the WCC.
That’s because Saint Mary’s may finally have the horses to knock the Bulldogs off of their perch. The Gaels, with returning studs like Jock Landale and Calvin Hermanson, have already knocked off teams like Cal, Dayton and New Mexico State.
And so BYU is staring another possible third-place finish right in the face. and that may not be good enough.
In the past six years since BYU joined the West Coast Conference, the Cougars have won a lot of games. During that time, the boys from Provo have gone 60-26 (69.8 percent), not a bad record at all. But BYU has yet to win the conference or the conference tournament.
Not with Tyler Haws. Not with Eric Mika. Not with Kyle Collinsworth.
So what has to happen for the Cougars to break through? How can they finally climb to the top of the WCC ladder and guarantee that NCAA berth? It’s simple to state, but hard to do.
First, BYU has to win all its home games. Period. No excuses. Beating Portland should be fairly simple. The Pilots are a mediocre team, one the Cougars have never lost to at home. But come Saturday, BYU has to light up the cold Provo landscape. Saint Mary’s needs to feel unwelcome. The Gaels should not be comfortable, on or off the court. Crank the thermostat in their locker room. Crank the heat up in the game.
Last year, the Cougars lost conference home games to the Gaels (by 13) and Gonzaga (by 10). That can’t happen again. The reward was a third-place conference finish and a trip to the NIT.
The Marriott Center should be the most inhospitable place in the league.
Secondly, BYU can’t lose games that its “supposed to win.” It happens every year. Last season it happened thrice: At San Diego (the Cougs took an 88-75 loss to the 6-12 Torreros), at Santa Clara (a 76-68 loss to a team the Cougars had beaten by 30 a couple weeks earlier) and at Pepperdine (the Waves were 5-13 in conference play, including a 99-83 win vs. BYU).
Gonzaga doesn’t lose those kind of games. The Zags make a living out of beating the Pepperdines and Santa Claras of the WCC. Last year, Gonzaga went 1-1 against BYU and 16-0 against the rest of the conference.
Losing to bad teams is what costs conference titles … and trips to the NCAAs.
And finally, BYU has to be able to win the big one. When the conference title is on the line, when the big shot needs to be made, when the bubble can be obliterated, that’s when the Cougars have to step up.
And that’s what this week’s must-win games are all about. BYU needs to crush the Pilots Thursday night, then step forward and play a big-time game against a big-time opponent Saturday at the Marriott Center.
That’s the ultimate recipe for a conference title. And it starts Thursday.
Blue Blood is a sports column written by Andy Griffin. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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