When BYU steps onto the court to play Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference semifinals on Monday, it will have been nine days since the Cougars last played a game.
An 81-64 win at Pepperdine on Feb. 29 represents the last BYU game. So what have the Cougars been doing in the meantime?
Well, resting, for one. No one goes through a 31-game regular season without some bumps and bruises, so getting healthy is a big plus. They’ve also celebrated a birthday — senior walk-on Taylor Maughan. Yoeli Childs joked that Maughan “was 32 years old today.” They also got a chance to congratulate teammate Connor Harding on his engagement to BYU women’s basketball player Paisley Johnson.
Then there was the challenge of preparing for as many as seven different opponents early in the week, which was trimmed to just three after Saturday’s late quarterfinal between Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine that went double overtime. The Gaels eventually prevailed 89-82 behind Jordan Ford’s career-high 42 points, which helped offset 43 from Waves guard Colbey Ross.
The long period of time between games can be … difficult.
“It sucks, man,” Childs said. “It’s great that we put ourselves in this position but we’re all so competitive that we want to go play. We’re trying to compete and get after it in practice. We’re excited for that opportunity but we’re definitely going to be fired up when it’s time to play.”
Top-seeded Gonzaga takes on No. 5 seed San Francisco in the other semifinal on Monday.
BYU is a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens on Monday and Tuesday, so the Cougars come to Las Vegas in a very different position than in recent years.
Mark Pope is the captain of this ship that is sailing into March Madness.
“It’s like being on the watchtower where you job is to see ahead, to cover the potholes before you get there, or to avert the troubles or whatever,” Pope said. “I’ve been unbelievably fortunate this year where I’ve scrambled to do that and these guys keep telling me, ‘You don’t need to do this, we got this.’ I have a lot of faith in these guys and they’ve earned it.
“That doesn’t mean they get complacent or they’re taking things for granted. We really believe if as a staff we do our work as diligently as we can and use everything that we have, every arrow in our quiver, our guys will be there right with us and respond. How blessed are we, right? As fans and coaching staff to believe in these guys and I do.”
The matchup with Saint Mary’s will be difficult. The Gaels beat the Cougars — sans Childs, who was recovering from a fractured finger — 87-84 in overtime in Moraga in January. The Cougars — with Childs in the lineup — returned the favor with a thrilling 81-79 win in Provo on TJ Haws’ late 3-pointer.
BYU will follow the same formula that has served them well all season: The next game is the biggest.
“When the next game is the biggest game we have to be prepared and we have to be locked in,” Cougar senior guard Jake Toolson said. “I think it helps us practice well and compete in practice and really have goals and have things in mind that we want to do. Things we want to accomplish and want to get better at. It also helps us grow and not be complacent.
“It’s great that we finished out conference the way we did (nine straight wins). Now it’s time to do something else. We always have that mindset of thinking about the next challenge. We’ve always accepted those challenges and always give our best this season so far.”
Another approach that has worked is daring to dream that anything is possible.
“You can’t help but feel the juice of March,” Pope said. “This is what we live for. It’s Christmas every single day for six weeks if you do it right, but it’s so much more exhausting than Christmas. If do it right, when all is said and done, when you are finished you should just have nothing in the tank. If my guys do this right, when you guys see them the day after we’re done, they will just be blank faced and empty.
“If you can do that, if you can push yourself that hard and be that disciplined, then regardless of the outcome, for the rest of your life it will just get sweeter and sweeter and sweeter. So that’s what we’re pushing for. Very few teams and very few players get the chance to experience that but that’s what we’re trying to do.”