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Player-led resurgence has Cougars knocking on the door of the Big Dance

BYU players react from the bench during game against West Virginia, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Morgantown, W.Va. The Cougars play at Oklahoma on Tuesday.

What was once considered an improbability — that No. 21 BYU would make the NCAA Tournament in its first year in the Big 12 — has taken a positive turn. It is now improbable that they won’t.

The weekend victory at West Virginia moved the Cougars closer to “lock” status for the field of 68. They aren’t there yet, but BYU’s No. 7 NET ranking with 10 games to play, including four ranked opponents, may be strong enough to withstand even the roughest nights ahead.

Unlike the AP Top 25 and coaches polls, which attract a lot of public chatter, the NET is the analytics-driven system the NCAA Tournament selection committee uses to fill out the field.

The Cougars are 16-5 and 4-4 in the Big 12. Four of BYU’s next 10 games are against Quad 1 opponents, including Tuesday at Oklahoma (6 p.m., ESPN+). Playing a Quad 1 opponent can strengthen the Cougars’ NET whether they win or lose. This is a major difference between the strength of the Big 12 and BYU’s history in the WCC.

Initially, the season forecast looked bleak for BYU after the Cougars were projected to finish 13th in the Big 12 preseason poll. The national perception started to change when BYU upset No. 17 San Diego State on Nov. 10.

Beating North Carolina State in Las Vegas on Nov. 24 strengthened the Cougars’ poll position. Two weeks later, after routing Evansville, BYU took over the No. 1 NET ranking and they have been hanging around the top seven ever since.

The fact that the Cougars are in the NCAA Tournament conversation speaks volumes for what the players have done to transform their game. Last February, it was a much different story when BYU was stumbling to a second straight fifth-place finish in the WCC.

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This February, playing with basically the same roster, except for newcomer Aly Khalifa and the surgically repaired Trevin Knell, the Cougars are winning at a higher level and in a much more difficult league.

To their credit, the guys changed how they play offense and defense. They tweaked their attitude about rebounding and have enjoyed a surge of selflessness when passing up a good shot for a better shot has led to an increase of made shots.

As a result, in addition to 16 wins, BYU leads the Big 12 in scoring (84.4) and 3-point shots (255). The Cougars are No. 2 in the conference in rebounds (41.1) and assists (424) and they are No. 4 in scoring defense (66).

BYU has a road win at UCF on the same floor where the Knights beat Kansas. The Cougars also have a road win at West Virginia, where Kansas, Texas and Cincinnati each fell short.

This is not only a formula for reaching the Big Dance, but also how you contend in what is widely considered the toughest basketball conference in America. There isn’t a single team looking forward to facing BYU in next month’s Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.

Cougars on the air

No. 21 BYU (4-4, 16-5)
at Oklahoma (4-5, 16-6)
Tuesday, 6 p.m. MST
Lloyd Noble Center, Norman, Oklahoma
TV: ESPN+
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

Coaches coach, but players win games, and these players have collectively taken their respective talents to another level.

Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, Jaxson Robinson, Spencer Johnson and Trevin Knell — take a bow. The guard line is holding its own.

Fousseyni Traore, Aly Khalifa, Noah Waterman and Atiki Ally Atiki — a tip of the cap. The big boys are playing bigger than expected.

Working together, this roster has rebuked the improbability of playing in the Big Dance. It’s now growing more and more improbable that they won’t.

BYU forward Fousseyni Traore (45) is introduced as a starter during ahead of game against West Virginia Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Morgantown, W.Va. | Kathleen Batten, Associated Press
BYU forward Fousseyni Traore (45) is introduced as a starter during ahead of game against West Virginia Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in Morgantown, W.Va. | Kathleen Batten, Associated Press