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BYU has some obstacles to overcome against UCF to advance in first-ever Big 12 basketball tournament

Central Florida guard Jaylin Sellers, center, and BYU guard Trevin Knell (21) go after thse ball during the second half of a game, Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. The two Big 12 newcomers will square off Wednesday morning at 10:30 in the league tourney.

KANSAS CITY — Some of the circumstances surrounding BYU’s first-ever Big 12 basketball tournament game aren’t exactly favorable for the Cougars, but coach Mark Pope’s squad believes it has what it takes to make a lengthy run here this week at the downtown T-Mobile Center.

“Our coaching staff and our trainers have prepared us. At the end of the day, it is still basketball. We are excited to get out there and hoop.”

BYU guard Dallin Hall

“We feel confident,” sophomore point guard Dallin Hall said Tuesday afternoon after the No. 20 Cougars practiced at UMKC’s Swinney Center some 15 minutes away from the arena where they will meet UCF at 10:30 a.m. MDT on Wednesday.

“Our coaching staff and our trainers have prepared us. At the end of the day, it is still basketball. We are excited to get out there and hoop.”

Fifth-seeded BYU (22-9) remains the favorite and did beat UCF in both regular-season matchups, but the much-improved Knights (17-14) served notice in a first-round 77-62 rout of Oklahoma State on Tuesday that they won’t be an easy out. Far from it.

Ibrahima Diallo scored 17 points and grabbed 11 rebounds and Darius Johnson added 11 as UCF shot a blistering 50% from 3-point range (9 of 18) and scored 16 second-chance points off 13 offensive rebounds. The Knights shot 40% from the field. Shooting stats and rebounding numbers are important to keep an eye on Wednesday as BYU relies so heavily on 3-point shooting and both teams rely so heavily on the ability to corral offensive boards.

That UCF being more familiar with the arena could also be a factor.

The Cougars won’t see the floor and get acquainted with the lighting and the shooting backgrounds until an hour before tipoff when they begin warmups. Pope said their allotted time for a shootaround is shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, so they would probably pass on the opportunity.

“That is the equivalent of 5:30 a.m. for us (from Mountain Time Zone),” he said. “I don’t think we will use it. I like to get in the gym just for our guys to feel the light. But we have an hour to warm up in the gym, so we will be fine.”

Hall concurred with his coach, saying the Cougars will be all right.

“We got some big-time shooters on this team,” he said. “The hour warmup is all we need to get ready. Today (at UMKC) was good for us.”

Another factor working against the Cougars is that they haven’t played well in games with early afternoon tipoffs this season. Their 93-83 loss at Oklahoma State tipped off at 1 p.m. local time in Stillwater, and their 84-74 loss at Kansas State began at 1 p.m. local time in Manhattan. They did beat Texas 84-72 in a contest that tipped off at noon in the Marriott Center.

BYU was 8 of 35 from deep against OSU and 6 of 31 from beyond the arc against KSU in the 10-point losses.

Pope said he walked up and down the aisle in the airplane Monday morning when the Cougars flew into Kansas City, trying to keep guys awake, with not much success.

“Just trying to help them sleep a little bit at night,” he said “… But sleep is overrated for a college kid.”

Although the danger of a slow start looms, a start that could give UCF confidence it can hang with BYU, and could get the crowd behind the underdogs, Pope said he probably won’t change up his starting lineup and get Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year Jaxson Robinson on the court at tipoff.

“Just like every team, we have been working towards this all year long,” Pope said. “And not working towards a place where this is a … crescendo pitch, but working towards it like we are trying to prepare and rep and rep and rep to be in this spot. So the guys are grateful to be here.”

Pope said drawing motivation from not placing a guy on any of the Big 12′s three all-league teams “is just not really our agenda” and won’t be a factor. However, Hall said “you hate to see it with the caliber of guys we have on this team,” and that it didn’t go unnoticed in Provo.

“We have had a chip on our shoulder all year. People have told us we can’t (do it), counted us out,” Hall said. “It is all stacked up and piled up, and we have put it to the side and we have just proved everyone wrong all year.”

As was reported by the Deseret News last week, BYU starting center Aly Khalifa is Muslim and will be fasting (going without food and liquids, including water) during daylight hours in observance of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began Sunday night.

Pope said Khalifa “was terrific” in practice Tuesday and showing no signs of lacking energy or being dehyrdated.

“We of course are trying to monitor everything really, really carefully,” Pope said. “But he was really sharp in practice today.”

If BYU wins Wednesday, it will meet No. 4 seed Texas Tech at the same time (10:30 a.m. MDT) on Thursday in a quarterfinal game. The Red Raiders (22-9) overcame a 48-32 halftime deficit to beat the Cougars 85-78 in Lubbock on Jan. 20.

UCF Knights
Oklahoma State guard Javon Small (12) and UCF guard Shemarri Allen (2) chase a loose ball during game Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. UCF won 77-62, and will face BYU Wednesday morning in Kansas City. | Charlie Riedel, Associated Press