Analysis: BYU dealt a disappointing No. 6 seed for NCAA Tournament, but that might not be a bad thing for Cougars

BYU players  celebrate a 3-pointer at the end of the game during the Big 12 conference championship against UCF in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Sunday, the Cougars found out what seed they receivedin the NCAA Tournament, and who and where they will play.
BYU players celebrate a 3-pointer at the end of the game during the Big 12 conference championship against UCF in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. Sunday, the Cougars found out what seed they receivedin the NCAA Tournament, and who and where they will play.

At first glance, it appears that BYU was treated unfavorably, perhaps even unfairly, by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee on Sunday when the 23-10 Cougars were handed a No. 6 seed and sent to Omaha, Nebraska, where they will face Atlantic 10 conference tournament champion Duquesne, a No. 11 seed.

But look at it this way: BYU might have been handed a solid by the committee, even if it won’t get to play in Salt Lake City, as many BYU fans — and local editors with tight travel budgets — had hoped. There is also the possibility that BYU’s policy of not playing on Sunday, for religious reasons, played a factor in its low seeding as well. More on that in a bit.

Tipoff is at 10:40 a.m. MDT Thursday and the game will be televised by truTV.

No offense to the Dukes (24-11), who just won four games in four days to win the A-10, but they could be a much better matchup for the Cougars than, say, any of the 12 seeds BYU would have faced had it drawn the No. 5 seed it believed it deserved.

Here are the four 12 seeds and their fifth-seeded opponent: UAB (San Diego State), Grand Canyon (Saint Mary’s), James Madison (Wisconsin) and McNeese (Gonzaga).

BYU coach Mark Pope was still trying to decipher it all when he met with reporters via Zoom an hour after the Selection Show concluded.

“The NCAA Selection Committee put out their one-through-68 list, and we were 17. So we were the No. 1 five (seed). And so I am super proud of that,” Pope said, after being asked if he was surprised that BYU got a lower seed than No. 5 seed San Diego State, a team that it beat 74-65 in Provo on Nov. 10.

“That is a really incredible accomplishment for our guys. The seeding worked how it did after that,” Pope continued. “Like I said, every single team you play in this NCAA Tournament is going to be great. We are just excited to have a chance to go play in it.”

Yes, the Zags got the No. 5 seed and spot at SLC’s Delta Center that BYU coveted, a possibility for BYU that was erased when Big 12 mate Kansas was given a No. 4 seed and sent to SLC. Teams from the same conference can’t meet until the Sweet 16, per the rules that guide the committee.

Also, the Midwest Regional in Detroit to which that bracket in SLC feeds is a Friday-Sunday regional, thereby taking BYU out of that scenario due to its no Sunday play policy. The Thursday-Saturday West Regional in Los Angeles takes the 7-10 vs. 2-15 winner in SLC, but for BYU to be placed in that draw it would have had to have been a 7 or a 2 seed. That wasn’t realistic.

So there was some method to the committee’s apparent madness.

“Most of all I am disappointed for our fanbase. I think it would have been really special for Cougar Nation to be able to be there in that (Delta Center). We kinda had hope that that is where we would end up,” Pope said. “But listen, it is so hard to get into this tournament, and there are a million different factors, and the fact that we have a chance to go play and go compete is what really matters to us, and that is where our hearts are right now and being a part of March Madness is really special, and it is hard-earned and an opportunity at the very best you get once a season.”

So count your blessings, BYU fans.

The take from here is that BYU might have a slightly easier path to the Sweet 16 as a No. 6 seed in Omaha against Duquesne and then probably Illinois than as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed in Salt Lake City, or anywhere else.

The other No. 11 seeds are ACC champion North Carolina State, Pac-12 champion Oregon and Mountain West champion New Mexico. All three would be favored to beat Duquesne.

Sure, neither of those teams would have made the Big Dance if they hadn’t won their conference tournaments — nor would have Duquesne — but they are still more highly rated in than the Dukes, who are at No. 86. Oregon is 55, NC State is 58 and New Mexico is 23. BYU is No. 16 in Kenpom, No. 12 in the NET rankings.

Duquesne is the No. 46 overall seed, so a case could be made that the Dukes, and the other teams in BYU’s bracket, got a raw deal with BYU being underseeded as well.

Asked if the NCAA provided an explanation to BYU regarding the seeding, and whether the no Sunday deal was a factor, Pope said no, and shrugged.

“I don’t know if we will ever get an explanation on that. It seems like a significant bump (down),” Pope said. “You would think if it was a no Sunday (reason), you would think there would be one or two Saturday five seeds (available). But I think out of the top 36 teams, we were the only team not seeded correctly based on the Selection Committee’s list of how they ranked teams.”

At any rate, BYU should quickly throw the apparent snub aside and start worrying about the red-hot Dukes.

“I know they are a really good basketball team,” said BYU star Jaxson Robinson, taking the correct approach. “Anybody that makes it into this tournament is a really great basketball team. We are just making sure that we come prepared, do what we need to do to make sure we are on our toes, ready to play.”

Groveling about seeding will look bad for BYU if it repeats what happened in 2021. As a six seed when all the games were played in Indianapolis, due to the pandemic, the Cougars were surprised in the opening round by UCLA, an eventual Final Four entrant that year.

Should BYU get past Duquesne as anywhere between a seven- and eight-point favorite — 6 seeds are 94-58 against 11 seeds in the Round of 64 — BYU will get the winner of No. 3 seed Illinois, the Big Ten tournament champion, and No. 14 Morehead State. Facing the Illini in Omaha isn’t optimal, but that matchup seems more favorable for BYU than one against the likes of the other No. 3 seeds — Kentucky, Creighton and Baylor.

The East Regional finals are in Boston on March 28 and 30; The Final Four is in Phoenix on April 6 and 8.

Getting back to that matchup with Duquesne. Yes, the Dukes are hot; and their coach — Keith Dambrot — was LeBron James’ high school coach. They have won 15 of their last 18 games, and are in the Big Dance for the first time since 1977.

They will be a popular pick to pull off the upset over a BYU team that didn’t look good in its last outing, that 81-67 loss to Texas Tech in which the Red Raiders led wire-to-wire in Kansas City.

But Duquesne was 9-8 to open the season, and is not a great offensive team. They are outstanding on defense, ranked 28th in defensive efficiency.

They should have BYU’s full attention.

“We need to make sure we are prepared, whether we are playing the Dukes or the No. 1 seed, UConn,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, we need to make sure we come prepared to play.”