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BYU Basketball Mailbag, Part 1: Do the Cougars have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament?

We’re answering your questions about BYU’s chances to make the Big Dance, the warmth of Dave Rose’s seat, and whether the Cougars’ improved 3-point defense is a fluke.

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As nonconference play begins to draw to a close and basketball season nears it’s turning point, it seems like a good time to hit pause and reflect on what we’ve seen from the BYU Cougars so far — and what we can expect to see over the next few months. And what better way to do that than taking some questions from the Vanquish The Foe community?

Since we got so many submissions, we’ll cover this in two parts. Look for Part 2 on Saturday.

As always, these are actual questions from actual readers. Let’s get started...

What are the odds BYU makes the tournament? — Will

Could this be the year we break through and finally win the NIT? — Alex

We might as well start here, since I got several variations on this question — and no shortage of gallows humor about the NIT.

Look, I wrote this the other day, but I’ll say it again here: Your feelings about this BYU team are completely dependent on your expectations going into the season. If you were one of those blue-goggled fans who had convinced yourself that this was a Sweet 16 squad? Yeah, you’re probably pretty disappointed. And if you’re one of those people who thought this was a talented but inexperienced team that could deliver some uneven results? You’re probably getting about what you expected, but that doesn’t necessarily make it less frustrating at times.

So it’s been an up-and-down experience thus far. There have been some really low lows (losing to UVU at home, obviously) and some pretty high highs (that win over Colorado was pretty dang fun). And as the young Cougars get ready to make the turn into conference play, they’re probably sitting on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in.

But that doesn’t mean the season is over. As long as BYU keeps winning games, they can certainly still build a resume that could compete for an at-large bid. A big win over Illinois on Saturday would be a great way to take the momentum from the Colorado win and carry it over into the last few games of the nonconference schedule.

So if I were a betting man, I’d put the Cougars’ odds of making the dance at around 40 percent, as of today. It’s going to be a bit of an uphill climb. They’ll have to win some big games against a couple really good teams, like Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. After all, BYU teams from past years have certainly found themselves in worse spots later in the season than this and still managed to qualify — and we know this year’s squad certainly has the talent to make it happen. It’s just a matter of molding and maximizing it.

If BYU doesn't win some form of WCC title in the next two years, do you let Rose go? — Dan

The chorus of Dave Rose critics has grown noticeably louder over the last month or so, and I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising. And I get the impulse to want to change something when your team is playing bad basketball. But anyone who thinks firing Dave Rose anytime soon is the answer should probably take a few chill pills.

That being said, Dan’s question is a reasonable one: What if the Lone Peak Dynasty that we’ve all been promised never really materializes? What if BYU can just never get over the hump and beat Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s? What do you do then?

Well, if that becomes the case, I think you’d definitely see Rose’s seat get quite a bit warmer. But I don’t expect you’d actually ever see BYU fire Rose. He’s been in Provo too long, won too many games and done too much for the program to be unceremoniously fired.

What would be more likely is that Rose would see the writing on the wall and opt to retire — going out on his terms and maintaining the spot in BYU basketball lore that he’s rightfully earned. After all, he’s not the youngest guy in the world and his past health issue will likely always be a lingering concern, so a retirement wouldn’t be totally out of left field anyway. And it would certainly keep with the school’s preference not to look like the trophy-crazy bad guys.

So if it happens, that’s what I expect would happen. Let’s just hope we never get to that. In fact, let’s all agree to never speak of this again...

What's been your biggest surprise and biggest disappointment so far this year? — Sam

The biggest and most pleasant surprise has definitely been Eric Mika’s unexpected dominance down low, especially so soon after returning from his mission. We always knew Mika was going to be good, but he has just been on another level. He’s essentially been one of the most productive post players in the country — to the point that it’s worth wondering whether he’ll even be around Provo much longer. But more on that in part two!

In terms of disappointments, the injury situation has to top the list. Missing out on a fully healthy Elijah Bryant and Kyle Davis is a major bummer. It’s not hard to imagine that, if both of those guys were available and playing at 100 percent, this team would likely look a lot different. Bryant in particular would give the Cougars’ guard line that extra threat that so often seems to be missing. Davis likely won’t be 100 percent for the rest of the season, and the jury is still out on whether Bryant will be able to come back and regain his full form during the run of play. But in an alternate world where those two never got hurt, BYU surely would have been better off.

In what ways has BYU improved its 3-point defense or is it just lucky that teams aren't hitting their threes right now? — Joe

This is one of those questions that doesn’t really have a definitive answer. The Cougars are currently holding their opponents to 30 percent from beyond the arc, as compared to 33 percent last season. To be sure, this is an improvement — and there have been times when BYU’s perimeter defensive has looked better than in years past. They’ve generally been playing more man-to-man, which allows them to match up to shooters more quickly and generally leaves them less vulnerable to 3-point barrages.

That’s not nothing, but it’s worth noting that they’ve also had some truly horrendous performances (coughUVUcough) where they couldn’t close out on shooters if their lives depended on it. So maybe they have just lucked into playing a bunch of really poor shooting teams? The Cougars have only played one team (Weber State) that is currently ranked among the top 100 teams nationally in 3-point shooting percentage, but they did manage to hold the Wildcats to a dismal 20 percent from outside. So who really knows?

One thing is for sure: This theory will continue to be tested, starting on Saturday. Illinois is currently 41st in the country in outside shooting, so they will present a stiff challenge that should begin to tell us whether BYU’s success at defending the three is the real deal or just a mirage. And fan need to hope it’s the former, because six of the Cougars’ nine WCC opponents are currently ranked among the top 100 is long-distance proficiency. If their success so far has all been a fluke, things could come crashing down pretty quickly once we get into conference — and nobody wants that.

Check back on Saturday for Part 2 of the BYU Basketball Mailbag!