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Winning on Selection Sunday — not this week — is what really matters for the Cougars

BYU players during a break in the action during game against the TCU Horned Frogs at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 2, 2024. The Cougars came back from a 17-point deficit to down the Frogs. Next up for the No. 5-seed Cougars is a matchup with the UCF Knights Wednesday morning in the Big 12 tournament.

BYU doesn’t compete on Sundays, but that doesn’t mean they can’t win on one.

No matter how this week’s Big 12 tournament plays out in Kansas City, the Cougars will hear their name called during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show for the first time since 2021. BYU’s 22-9 record and 10-8 conference finish has freed them from any white-knuckle bubble watching.

Holding steady with a No. 12 NET ranking, the Cougars are projected by a variety of services to be a No. 5 seed in the tournament — their best since Jimmermania produced a No. 3 seed in 2011. It’s a far cry from the last 12 years in the West Coast Conference, where BYU often played third fiddle behind Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s and anxiously held its collective breath on Selection Sunday.

The Cougars joined the WCC the year after Jimmer Fredette’s group reached the Sweet 16. They have returned to the Big Dance four times since, going 1-4 with seeds of 14, 10, 11 and 6. The lone win came during the 2013 First Four when BYU rallied from 25 points down to beat Iona, only to be bounced by Marquette in the first round.

The 2021 Cougars put their No. 6 seed up against No. 11 UCLA and watched the Bruins knock them out in the first round, 73-62.

BYU will try to beat UCF for the third time this season when they meet Wednesday in the second round of the Big 12 tournament (10:30 a.m., ESPN2). Unlike any of the early-round games during their WCC days, this isn’t a must-win game for the Cougars.

Should BYU beat the Knights, it will face Texas Tech on Thursday. That isn’t a must-win either, and in the event the Cougars reach Friday’s semifinals against No. 1 Houston, they won’t have to win that one either.

This is what life is like in arguably the toughest basketball conference in the country, where the tournament résumé is already done. It is the opposite of BYU’s experience in the WCC, where any kind of defeat prior to the semifinals against Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s was a bubble burster.

A scenario like this should have the Cougars taking the floor in Kansas City as carefree as they have been since the night Jimmer dropped 52 on New Mexico in the semifinals of the 2011 Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.

As grand of a moment as that was, which pushed Jimmer past Danny Ainge as BYU’s all-time leading scorer, it had little impact on the weight of a next-day loss to San Diego State in the championship game and even less on Selection Sunday, as BYU was still awarded a No. 3 seed — their best in 31 years.

Unless an outlier rises up and wins a conference tournament for the automatic bid, these kinds of weeks are fun to watch, but they do little to change the seedings of teams whose body of work already has them firmly in the field. As of today, ESPN projects nine Big 12 teams in the Big Dance.

An early loss in Kansas City wouldn’t be the worst thing for No. 20 BYU, No. 1 Houston, No. 7 Iowa State, No. 14 Baylor, No. 16 Kansas, No. 25 Texas Tech, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma or even Kansas State. The weeklong winner is likely to pay a large physical toll. In fact, losing early carries a reward of additional rest before the games that really matter begin next week.

Connecticut didn’t make it out of the Big East Conference semifinals last year, but when it beat San Diego State to cut down the nets in Houston, the conference tournament was the last thing on the players’ minds.

The fact that BYU can qualify for the NCAA Tournament before they ever tip off in the Big 12 tournament is an indicator of how different its opportunities have become. It also takes the edge off this week’s games because no matter how they go, BYU will still be a winner on Sunday.

BYU center Aly Khalifa
BYU center Aly Khalifa drives to the basket past Denver forward Touko Tainamo (25) during game Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023, in Provo, Utah. Khalifa is one of three Muslim BYU basketball players on this year's roster and began observing Ramadan last Sunday. | George Frey, Associated Press