Wednesday March 11th, 2015

Gonzaga and BYU entered Tuesday night’s West Coast Conference tournament championship game with drastically different priorities. The Zags were hoping to bolster their case for a favorable seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars were looking to end all bubble speculation and earn an automatic bid.

By the end of the night, Gonzaga was brandishing another piece of conference hardware, and BYU was bracing itself for four-plus days of Life On The Bubble. The Zags won, 91-75, to improve their record to 33-2 and buttress their bid for the No. 2 seed in the West Region. Even if Gonzaga isn’t rewarded with a geographical advantage, it’s in good shape on the two-line.

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The future for BYU is less clear. The main reason the Cougars are still in the conversation for a bid is the win they notched against Gonzaga in Spokane last month. Prior to that game, the Cougars had zero victories against teams ranked in the top 50 of the Ratings Percentage Index. They also had three losses to teams ranked outside the top 100 of the RPI.

While the Gonzaga win made BYU a much stronger candidate for at-large inclusion, other factors suggest the Cougars could be dangerous if they make the field. They feature one of the top pure scorers in the country (Tyler Haws), a senior guard who made over 50 percent of his threes during conference play (Skyler Halford)* and a skilled, versatile guard with a knack for posting triple doubles (Kyle Collinsworth).

Collinsworth delivered another signature performance on Tuesday night. The junior scored 28 points, grabbed eight rebounds, dished out five assists and knocked down nine of his 11 free throw attempts. Yet while Collinsworth strained Gonzaga’s coverage most of the game, the Zags did a good job bothering the Cougars’ other offensive threats and generally disrupting their rhythm on that end of the floor.

Haws, who entered Tuesday ranked third in Division I at 22.1 points per game, managed only 15 on 6-of-14 shooting with zero three-point makes. Meanwhile, the rest of the Cougars starters combined for only eight points. Still, the bigger problem for BYU was its inability to slow down Gonzaga’s offense. Credit the Zags for repeatedly exploiting an obvious defensive weakness in the second half.

After Collinsworth converted a layup at the 16:29 mark to narrow Gonzaga’s lead to two, the Zags fed Przemek Karnowski for baskets on three consecutive possessions. The massive center is a tough cover for most opponents, but BYU's inability to stop him in the post was particularly demoralizing for a team trying to make up a deficit in the second half.

Karnowski finished with 12 points, and frontcourt partner Domantas Sabonis contributed 15 points off the bench. Below is one of the aforementioned Karnowski buckets.

[ESPN; hover to play]

BYU is prone to lapses on the defensive end, but—making due allowance for Tuesday night’s loss—it’s one of the few teams in the country with enough firepower to offset that. Take, for example, the Gonzaga game in February. The Cougars limited WCC player of the year Kevin Pangos and fellow league first-team member Kyle Wiltjer to only 12 points on 5-of-23 shooting combined, and held Gonzaga well below its season points per possession average.

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Another indication that BYU is better than its tenuous place on the suggests is the disparity between its resume and other metrics. Though the Cougars boast only one RPI top 50 win (over Gonzaga) and a 4-7 record against RPI top 100 opponents, they entered Tuesday ranked 34th in the Sagarin ratings and 28th in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. Consider that BYU’s eight losses entering Tuesday came by an average of 4.75 points.

When comparing BYU to other teams hoping to sneak under the bubble cutline, will the selection committee value the Cougars’ solid nonconference schedule, take into consideration their close losses and at least discuss their standing in other metrics? Or will it get hung up on BYU’s trio of ugly losses, poor overall strength of schedule and lack of quality wins beyond Gonzaga?

It will be one of the more fascinating cases in the lead up to Sunday. Bubble Watcher Michael Beller laid out what was at stake for BYU before Tuesday night’s game against Gonzaga. “It’s simple: Beat Gonzaga in the WCC final tonight and the Cougars are in with the auto bid. If they lose, they’re out,” Beller wrote. Perhaps this loss is as damning as that logic indicates, but I wouldn’t completely rule out the Cougars hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.

The difference is, whereas a win on Tuesday night would have preempted intriguing bubble debate by guaranteeing BYU a spot in the field, the Cougars no longer control their fate.

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