You can exhale now. They're in.
BYU saw their ticket to the NCAA Tournament punched on Sunday evening — although not quite in the way many expected. The Cougars, who most prognosticators believed to be solidly situated in the field, were among the last four teams included, setting up a surprise matchup with fellow 11-seed Ole Miss in a play-in game on Tuesday evening in Dayton.
Here are five quick takeaways from BYU's nerve-wracking Selection Sunday on (the right side of) the bubble:
1. At least they're in
This was always the most important thing. As disappointed as some might be with the Cougars' seeding — and even more scandalously, their inclusion in a lowly play-in game — just getting into the tournament is a massive accomplishment, especially given relatively recent history.
Think back to a little over a month ago. BYU had just lost to Pepperdine (for a second time) on the road, meaning they had dropped three of their last five games. Their tournament hopes were on life support. Many considered their bubble all but popped. Given where they were then, the Cougars should be considered fortunate to have found themselves in the Big Dance at all.
Of course, it wasn't just luck. BYU buckled down, got their house in order and ended the season on a tear — winning their next eight games. It was undoubtedly one of Dave Rose's best (and maybe the best) coaching jobs of his tenure. The fact that he's now taken a flawed, incomplete team and shaped them into a tournament-ready squad in 35 days is no small feat. So we should recognize this accomplishment for what it is.
2. The Selection Committee liked BYU less than we thought
That being said, there's still some disappointment among the Cougar faithful over this result. Many feel BYU wasn't justly rewarded — that they deserved a higher seed, and that they should have been granted a reprieve from playing an extra game in Dayton. So where did this sense of entitlement come from?
It probably comes from some inflated expectations. After all, most Cougar fans took the word of several bracketologists who expected BYU to be safely in the field and clear of the play-in games. In fact, ESPN's Joe Lunardi, the most prominent of them all, took them completely off his "Last Four In" list several days ago. I think those kinds of predictions probably lured us — myself included — into a bit of a false sense of security regarding BYU's candidacy.
Obviously, the Selection Committee disagreed with the bracketologists. They didn't think the Cougars' resume was nearly as strong. The lack of multiple wins over Top 50 RPI teams undoubtedly hurt them. Based on comments made by committee chair and Utah State athletic director Scott Barnes, it appears BYU's lone Top 50 win — a big one on the road over Gonzaga — may have been a key factor in keeping them viable.
3. Thank goodness for a general lack of bid thievery
According to the committee, BYU was 66th on their seed list — meaning they were the third-to-last team in the field. That's not the closest shave you can get, but it's pretty darn close. There wasn't a whole lot of margin for error, so in hindsight, the Cougars needed a lot of things to bounce their way.
And luckily, they did. For the first time in several years, there was a notable lack of bid thieves in conference tournament play. Normally you get more than a few mediocre teams rising up and snatching an automatic bid from a heavily favored (and at-large bid-worthy) opponent, giving that conference an extra bid and shrinking the bubble in the process. But we didn't have any of those this season. I suppose Wyoming was technically a bid thief in the Mountain West, but that didn't end up impacting any other conferences — instead it just pushed the Cowboys' conference-mate Colorado State out of the tournament without affecting the bubble anywhere else.
Ultimately, all of this chalk was good for the Cougars. Imagine if there had been three other bid thieves? BYU would have been left on the outside looking in. It was really that close. So next time you see that Northern Iowa, VCU or SMU fan in your life, be sure to thank them for taking care of business.
4. The Cougars have a pretty favorable road ahead
Now that they're in, it's time to look at what lies ahead. And really, considering the disappointment over BYU's seed, their path actually looks pretty good — so good, in fact, that ESPN's Jay Bilas picked them to make it to at least the Round of 32.
The Cougars open with Ole Miss, a team that limps into the tournament as losers of four of their last five games. The Rebels have a strong scoring guard in Stefan Moody who BYU will need to contain, but they're an eminently beatable team that's trending in the wrong direction. Ole Miss has very little inside presence and they like to play fast — which should make for an up-tempo game that plays to BYU's unique strengths.
If they survive Dayton, the Cougars will face Xavier on Thursday in Jacksonville. The Musketeers are a deep team, but one that lacks experience. They won just six games away from home all season, and struggle mightily to defend the 3-point line. They do have a pair of strong post players that BYU's bigs will need to grapple with, but if BYU can force Xavier into an up-and-down game and open up clean looks for shooters, they'll have a good chance at victory.
And if they manage to win that game? Baylor looms on Saturday. It's pointless to look too far ahead (it's entirely possible the season ends against the Rebels on Tuesday), but... the Cougars have to beat the Bears eventually, right?
5. Injuries now loom larger than ever
As favorable as BYU's draw looks in terms of matchups, the biggest downside to being forced into a play-in game is the short turnaround time.
If BYU had avoided the First Four, they would have two additional days to give ailing players like Anson Winder and Skyler Halford time to rest and, potentially, get ready to play in the first game. However, now that they will take the court on Tuesday, the Cougars have approximately two days before they tip off with Ole Miss. That barely leaves time for travel and a single practice, let alone extra rest for the injured. And if the Cougars were to win in Dayton? They'd be facing another game in yet another city in less than 48 hours. That's barely even time to breathe.
At minimum, it appears Halford will be good to go. The senior told the media on Sunday that he had practiced the last few days and "felt great." He should be ready to play against the Rebels. Winder is a much thornier issue. Rose said that Anson is battling a knee injury that will require surgery after the season. It's still very much up in the air as to whether he'll be able to play at all the rest of the way — and I imagine no decision will be made until right before game time on Tuesday.
The Cougars are obviously much better with both players on the floor, but the Selection Committee didn't do them any favors in helping get them there.