Many of the players have moved on and BYU has a new coach, but the beating the Cougars took from San Diego in last year’s West Coast Conference Tournament isn’t easily forgotten.
Setting the stage, BYU had earned the tournament’s third seed, which meant Dave Rose’s crew didn’t have to play until the quarterfinals. The veteran Toreros, meanwhile, had some injury issues and dropped to the seventh seed. They had to beat Portland and Santa Clara to reach the third round.
The game was never close. San Diego led 13-0 after the first four minutes and soared to a 44-point lead in the second half before the Cougars managed some cosmetic points late in an 80-57 loss.
Probably the most telling part of the story was that Rose and his assistants had no idea BYU wasn’t ready for the game, stating the Cougars had practiced really well leading up to the game.
The loss ended the Cougars season at 19-13 without an NCAA or NIT invitation.
So much has changed since that horrible March night. Rose retired and Mark Pope took over, bringing with him an enthusiasm and a commitment that has led the team into position for an NCAA invite. San Diego, meanwhile, graduated four of five starters and has started 0-4 in WCC play.
Eight players on BYU’s roster who played in that WCC tournament nightmare returned in 2019-20. One of those Cougars is sophomore Connor Harding, who scored 12 points off the bench in the game.
“It is a little payback, though,” Harding said. “They kicked us out of the tournament and took all of our hopes. I think that’s why Coach is on edge a little bit. It’s time to answer the call and get back at them.”
San Diego comes to the Marriott Center on Thursday.
“I think it (the loss) left a horrible taste in our mouths, and ever since the end of that game a lot of players re-committed themselves to the next season, saying that’s not going to happen to us again,” Harding said. “Not only were the coaches embarrassed but the players were embarrassed. We knew we were better than that. This whole off-season, it has shown on the court. I’m thankful for the hardship but it’s also a great opportunity to play them again.”
Pope said on his BYUtv coaches show that senior forward and leading scorer Yoeli Childs (open dislocation of his right index finger) is likely out another week to 10 days.
“The wound is healing,” Pope said. “Once we get healed then it’s a matter of how much pain there is, how comfortable he is, and then we’re still concerned about re-injury. It’s about how soon he feels confident. As you can imagine having that injury it’s about taking a big time hit or grabbing the ball or dunking the ball. Those things may take longer.”
BYU will need more solid contributions from sophomore forward Kolby Lee, who has improved tremendously from his freshman season. In the 11 games Childs has been out of the lineup, Lee has averaged 9.7 points and four rebounds while shooting 62 percent from the field.
“I think he’s been an absolute stud,” said Harding, a fellow Idahoan. “The numbers show it, too. He’s been stepping in, hitting shots and getting rebounds. He’ll keep getting better and had a great day of practice today, too.”
Pope said Lee’s biggest attribute has been recognizing his own strengths and limitations.
“He’s willing to stay in the wheelhouse of what makes him good, and that’s a huge thing,” Pope said. “Most players aren’t. Most players are so eager to get outside of the space where they look really good and they spend a lot of time looking bad. Coach (Chris) Burgess has done an incredible job with Kolby and growing all of our bigs.”
Pope pointed out that with Childs still recovering from his injury, Dalton Nixon, Zac Seljaas and Harding will have to step into the middle to defend and rebound from the four-spot.
Isaiah Pineiro (18.8 points per game), Isaiah Wright (13.6 ppg), Olin Carter III (14.8 ppg) and Tyler Williams (8.4 ppg) all exhausted their eligibility from last year’s San Diego team that won 21 games and advanced to the NIT.
The Toreros, under second-year coach Sam Scholl, are 7-12 overall and have lost five of their past six games with the only win against Division III Whittier College.
Junior Braun Hartfield (13.1 ppg) and sophomore Joey Calcaterra (12.4 ppg) are dangerous from the outside and freshman Marion Humphrey (8.1 ppg) — the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey — has potential. Sophomore Finn Sullivan — who scored what was then a career-high 17 points in the Toreros WCC Tournament win against BYU — posted a new career-best of 25 points in last Saturday’s 85-78 loss to Pepperdine.
San Diego has struggled offensively and are last in the conference in field goal percentage (.422), 3-point field goal percentage (.315) and turnover margin (-1.5).
Don’t expect the Cougars to take the Toreros lightly or overlook the them with a showdown at top-ranked Gonzaga looming on Saturday.
“It’s not really overlooking San Diego for the ‘Zags, but what it really would be is overlooking a game,” Pope said. “These guys so far have been unbelievable honing in on the task at hand. It’s going to do us no good to play well against the ‘Zags on Saturday if we don’t take care of business against San Diego on Thursday. I trust these guys. It’s human nature to get distracted, but they’ve proven to be locked in and adept at focusing on the task at hand.”