Had a BYU fan been asked in November if they would have cared what seed the BYU Cougars would receive in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, I doubt many would have been very picky. Mark Pope was tasked with replacing guys like Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson and TJ Haws after that squad went 24-8 and finished No. 18 in the AP poll in a year where there was no NCAA Tournament.
However, Pope reloaded for the 2020-2021 season instead of rebuilt, and BYU went 20-6 ahead of the NCAA Tournament, including a win on the road against a ranked San Diego State squad.
Throw in their most recent game, leading No. 1, undefeated Gonzaga by double digits at the half of the WCC championship game, all of a sudden, expectations shifted. When Selection Sunday came around, the Cougars were slotted as a 6 seed, higher than most Cougar fans even thought and their first single-digit seed since 2011. For once, the committee looked to be giving BYU their due, instead of bumping them down a peg for their pesky Sunday play rule or just because they were BYU. The expectation then shifted to winning a tournament game. Any 6 seed should be favored to beat the 11 seed, no matter the school attached to that seed.
On the surface, UCLA seemed to exhaust themselves in the play-in game against fellow 11 seed Michigan State. They went to overtime and looked like they lost one of their best players, Johnny Juzang, to an injury. The planets were aligning for BYU to win their first Round of 64 game since 2011.
The Cougars hardly even sniffed it.
To the credit of Bruins’ head coach Mick Cronin, UCLA was prepared and motivated while BYU was neither.
Not only did Juzang play through the ankle injury, he took the game over and gave BYU a taste of what it was like to get “Jimmered” by BYU back in 2011. He dropped 27 points, 19 of them in the first half. The Cougars adjusted and defended him well in the second half, but it was too little, too late, already being down 11 at the break.
Whether it was UCLA coming in red-hot, fresh from their play-in game victory, or BYU’s 10-day layoff between the WCC title game and the Round of 64, the Cougars looked overmatched and flustered.
Pope complimented his team’s effort, despite the challenges.
“I was really proud of my guys in the second half. They kept fighting and kept trying to chip away and that’s this locker room. It’s what they’ve been all year, and in some crucial moments, we just couldn’t come up with stops. Johnny [Juzang] was a handful tonight and we didn’t have answers for him. UCLA can be so meticulous with their pace of play, so it makes it hard to claw back in.”
UCLA was in control for the majority of the game and cruised to their second NCAA Tournament win this year. Then they validated it with a big win over 14 seed Abilene Christian to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 against Alabama.
This is another “what could have been?” moment for the BYU Cougars. What if they had gotten past UCLA and had the benefit of facing a 14-seed team with a berth to the Sweet 16 on the line?
Instead, Cougar fans are left wondering yet again. Sure, it was nice to have the tournament back after it was stripped away from not only BYU, but everyone last year due to the pandemic. Plus, it was BYU’s first appearance in the Big Dance since 2015.
However, the sting remains. Expectations, perhaps unfairly, were placed on this team to win for last year’s squad who would’ve also made noise in the tournament that never was. It was an off night at the very worst time for the Cougars on Saturday.
Mark Pope is an excellent coach and there is plenty of confidence he can reload the program and give it another go next year. Nevertheless, it was a disappointing end to a wild, whacky, fun, unique, thrilling season. BYU has their work cut out for them to try and run it back next season.