At least BYU knows it's highly unlikely they'll see New Mexico in the NCAA tournament. Given how the Cougars have fared the past couple years against the Lobos, that's probably a good thing.
Last night Steve Alford's team journeyed to Provo, Utah, and came away with an 82-64 win against the No. 3 team in the country. It was the first game that BYU played without starter Brandon Davies, a 6-9 sophomore who's been suspended from the team for a violation of the university's honor code. Inevitably the Cougars' performance has raised questions about their NCAA tournament prospects, questions that would have seemed unthinkable last Saturday when BYU scored an undeniably impressive 80-67 win at San Diego State.
Was it really just 72 hours ago that this team was widely viewed as on-track for a 1-seed in the NCAA tournament? Then again the Cougars' seed is up to the selection committee and, anyway, the opponents that BYU will face in the NCAA tournament won't differ dramatically in quality the first couple rounds whether they're a 1-, a 2-, or even a 3-seed. What interests me more than where this team will be seeded is just how far they can go in the tournament. No Mountain West team has made the second weekend of the tournament since UNLV reached the Sweet 16 in 2007. Can BYU, even without Davies, snap that streak?
Here's what you need to know about BYU, without Davies and after the New Mexico debacle.
Just because BYU looks shaky doesn't mean it's time to panic.
If you had told Cougar head coach Dave Rose before the season began that he'd wake up on March 3 and find his team 27-3 overall and 13-2 in the Mountain West, he would have taken that, believe me. Throw in the fact that Rose has a potential national player of the year on his roster and I think you'd have to classify the outlook as rosy, Davies or no Davies.
An awful game can happen -- with or without Brandon Davies.
Last night was far and away BYU's worst shooting performance in conference play, and it came against a defense that's not particularly accomplished at forcing misses. The perimeter-oriented Cougars were held to 5-of-26 shooting on their threes and managed just 64 points in a 74-possession game. (Note that Jimmer Fredette was 1-of-9 beyond the arc. Amazingly he scored 33 points anyway, thanks to 12 points at the line and 9-of-17 shooting on his twos.)
In short, this game was burn-the-tape unusual. That's not to take anything away from New Mexico, mind you. If anything just the opposite. For one night the Lobos were so good -- UNM had an uninterrupted double-digit lead for the final 31 minutes of the contest -- that we can't really draw any conclusions, yet, about post-Davies BYU. James Anderson, a 6-10 junior, got the start in Davies' place but played just 11 minutes. Clearly Anderson doesn't figure to replace Davies all by himself -- the junior's attempted just 30 shots all year. (Fredette launched 26 shots last night alone.) Indeed Rose has spoken of going small in Davies' absence. We just can't tell yet how that will work.
We already know BYU can win without Davies.
Davies was a capable rebounder at both ends of the floor and in conference play he took 19 percent of BYU's shots during his minutes, but one of his most important contributions was as a non-Fredette player who could get to the line. The sophomore drew more than five fouls for every 40 minutes he played. Add that to Fredette's knack for drawing whistles, and the Cougars have often enjoyed the luxury of playing against opponents who are in foul trouble. But of course foul-trouble's a double-edged sword, and Davies was known to commit an occasional foul in his own right. For the most part BYU did just fine when Davies was sidelined with foul trouble. Against UNLV on February 5, for example, Davies was limited to 19 minutes and the Cougars won by 14. And in January Davies fouled out after just 23 minutes at Colorado State and BYU prevailed by nine. Rose would prefer to have his 6-9 sophomore in the lineup, of course, but this team isn't necessarily helpless just because Davies is gone. They've proven as much.
Whether or not the Cougars get a 1-seed, the very term "1-seed" might be a little misleading.
BYU is clearly an excellent team. You don't win 27 of 30 games as a member of the tough Mountain West without doing something right. The thing is, the Cougars were an excellent team last year too, but with much less fanfare -- not to mention a much lower seed. And now that they've lost to New Mexico twice this year, the parallels between this season and last season have officially crossed the line from "interesting" to "downright eerie." In both seasons BYU dominated the MWC -- except for New Mexico. In both seasons Rose's team went 0-2 against the Lobos.
Last year the Cougars outscored the Mountain West by 0.22 points per possession, and, at 13-3, finished second to UNM in the standings. That was judged worthy of a 7-seed by the committee. BYU won a double-overtime thriller against Florida in the round of 64 before falling to Kansas State by 12. This year? After last night's game the Cougars are 13-2 in conference play, outscoring the MWC by 0.16 points per trip. That body of work seems almost certain to net Rose's team a much higher seed than they received last year. But we'd probably do well to remember that the year-to-year difference in actual performance is not all that great. That doesn't mean this team is destined to lose in the round of 32, of course. Merely that the Cougars weren't necessarily invincible, even with Davies.
If I were Dave Rose I'd tell my team to take a deep breath and focus on honoring the seniors at home on Saturday against Wyoming. BYU still has an excellent opportunity to do the Mountain West proud and make a deep tournament run. Sure, it will be tougher without Brandon Davies, but nothing comes easy in March.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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