After playing nine of their last 11 games away from Provo, the BYU men's basketball team is finally heading home for a long overdue homestand.
But even as they do, one question persists in the hearts and minds of the Cougar faithful: Is there even anything left for the team to play for until the West Coast Conference tournament? Or has this seemingly endless road trip resulted in the premature death of the boys in blue's hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament?
Coming off a tough loss to Pepperdine on Saturday night (their second defeat in three games), the answer is becoming increasingly clear: While the Cougars' tournament dreams are technically still on life support, and will be until they're officially extinguished in Las Vegas next month, the doctor's hand is very much on the plug.
Let's look at the facts: BYU currently sits at 14-7, with an RPI of 67 and a KenPom ranking of 64. As raw numbers, those aren't very good, but they're also not that dissimilar to where past BYU teams have stood at this point and still ended up qualifying for the Big Dance.
The differences begin when you start looking at who the Cougars have played. Unlike past years, this BYU squad didn't play a particularly tough schedule. (Remember, it's really hard to build a schedule in college basketball, especially for a program like BYU.) There just weren't many opportunities on their nonconference slate for "signature" wins, and they failed to convert on all of them — meaning they were left with only a handful of chances against top WCC opponents (i.e., only St. Mary's and Gonzaga) to boost their resume.
As a result, the Cougars currently sit at 2-3 against the RPI Top 100, with the losses coming to Utah, Colorado and St. Mary's — all good teams, but no world-beaters. By contrast, their only victories have come over an increasingly underwhelming Gonzaga team on the road and a perfectly fine Belmont team at home. Meh.
No matter which way you cut it, that's not a particularly compelling resume for an at-large contender — and BYU doesn't really have a path forward for improving it. They've got 13 games left (at most), with only two guaranteed to come against Top 100 opponents — and again, it's not like beating Gonzaga and St. Mary's in Provo (or in Vegas, for that matter) means quite as much this year in the eyes of the selection committee as it might have in years past.
So things look pretty bleak — but they might not be totally hopeless. (Yet.)
Historically, teams of BYU's caliber (reasonably good teams with comparatively weak resumes) usually need to get to 26 wins in order to feel comfortable about their chances going into Selection Sunday. Teams with 25 wins are certainly still on the bubble, but they tend to find themselves on the outside looking in just as often as they find themselves dancing.
For this year's BYU team, the projections seem to bear that scenario out. According to TeamRankings.com, who has a statistical model that tracks all of this stuff throughout the season, BYU has a 93 percent chance to make the tournament if they get to 26 wins. If they only get to 25 wins, that number drops to 57 percent. At 24 wins? Only 14 percent.
So 26 wins is still the magic number for the Cougars. Unfortunately, they're firmly behind the eight-ball when it comes to actually being able to get there. As I mentioned, BYU only has 13 possible games left on their schedule — and that would require them to make it to the WCC tournament championship game. After the Pepperdine loss, they'd now need to win 12 of those games in order to hit 26 wins, which essentially means they'd need to win out until the finale in Vegas.
That's a tall task for any team, let alone one that's dropped two of their last three — including an inexplicable loss to a really bad Portland squad. And the numbers reflect that challenges, too. That's why TeamRankings.com gives BYU just as 12 percent chance to grab an at-large bid, and only a 28 percent chance to make the tournament overall.
In other words, it's a long shot. Can it be done? Yes, conceivably. BYU has seven of its remaining 10 regular season games at home, where they've been dominant this season. Pair that with the fact that Dave Rose has a proven track record of getting his teams to play their best ball late in the year and you can begin to see a glimmer of how the Cougars could potentially get hot and make some magic happen. Is it likely? Probably not. But fans can dream, right?
However, if we're being realistic (and I'd argue we should), BYU probably needs to win the WCC's automatic bid to go dancing this year. Winning 12 straight games is incredibly hard to do, particularly when you've got to face a St. Mary's squad that now has the conference championship in their sights and a Gonzaga team that will be hellbent on avenging two straight home losses to the Cougars, not to mention the confounding enigma that is the Pepperdine Waves. And BYU has what it takes to get hot at the right time and cut down the nets in Las Vegas. They're as talented as any team in the field, and when they're locked in, they can beat any opponent they'll be asked to face.
The question, of course, is whether they will. And as the BYU faithful have learned the hard way this season, that's an entirely different proposition altogether.