College Basketball Nation: Brigham Young Cougars

3-point shot: Best Final Four hosts

September, 20, 2013
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1. The Final Four is accepting offers for future sites for 2017-20. The deadline for the bids is Oct. 11. Let's clear this up a bit. Indianapolis, host again in 2015 after North Texas in 2014, has a deal with the NCAA that they will host at least every five years through 2039. Indianapolis is a great host city with its proximity between venues and passion for the sport. The plan for a new dome in Atlanta, tentatively scheduled to open in 2017, would put that city back in the mix. New domes are always looking for huge events. If North Texas is a success, then putting the event back in Jerry's World will likely happen. I'm hopeful San Antonio and New Orleans will continue to bid for the event, as both cities have been terrific hosts and are accessible for fans. You need destinations for an event like the Final Four. That's why Houston was not a great host. The Final Four was too spread out at three different locations with nothing happening around the dome itself. Houston somehow got two Final Fours the last time the bids were handed out. Houston hosted in 2011 and will again in 2016. Phoenix/Glendale failed to host the last time around. So it will be interesting to see if they make a play again for the event. The 60,000-seat minimum and 10,000-hotel room minimum will limit some from bidding.

2. Practice starts next Friday in college basketball and teams are looking for creative ways to get fans interested early. Duke will host an open practice next Saturday from 10 to noon. But my favorite is Pitt. The Panthers had a successful late-night event on campus. This time, the Panthers are hosting an event in advance of Pitt playing Virginia in football near Heinz Field. So the morning madness next Saturday at 10:30 a.m. will try to get Panthers fans jazzed. There will be a special guest, though. Check him out here.

3. BYU coach Dave Rose is home and resting after having cancerous spots removed. But he is well enough to host recruits this weekend. If anything, the recruits should see the courage and fight in Rose that should provide quite a sales pitch to play for someone who is going through something much harder than they would ever dream about while playing at BYU. The plan is still for Rose to be ready to go for the start of practice on Oct. 7. The Cougars are choosing to wait a week to start.
Editor's note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

When and where: Nov. 25-26 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Semifinal schedule for the CBE Hall of Fame Classic:
Nov. 25: Texas vs. BYU (7:30 p.m., ESPNU); Wichita State vs. DePaul (10, ESPN3)
Nov. 26: Consolation game (7:30 p.m., ESPNU); Championship game (10, ESPN2)

Initial thoughts: Wichita State couldn’t have picked a better year to travel three hours northeast on Interstate 35 for a game in Kansas City. The Shockers, who have a large alumni base in the area, are riding high after last season’s Final Four appearance. And no one would be surprised if Gregg Marshall’s squad is even better this season. Wichita State returns three starters (Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and Tekele Cotton) along with its top reserve (point guard Fred VanVleet) from its 30-win team. ... DePaul was a massive disappointment in 2012-13, when it won just 11 games. But the Blue Demons could be on the cusp of a breakthrough season thanks to the return of leading scorers Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young. ... BYU has reason for optimism as well. Led by Tyler Haws, the Cougars return nearly every key piece from the squad that won 24 games and reached last year’s NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. ... Texas went 16-18 last season and failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in Rick Barnes’ tenure. Things could get even worse in 2013-14. The Longhorns lost their top three scorers and signed a lackluster recruiting class compared to past seasons.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers forward Cleanthony Early
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY SportsWichita State's Cleanthony Early gained national attention with his performance in the Final Four.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: DePaul is athletic and physical enough to upset Wichita State in the semifinals. Both teams feature veteran players, so chemistry won’t be as big of an issue as it will be for other schools this early in the season. I won’t be shocked if this is a competitive game, especially compared to the other semifinal.

Potential matchup I’d like to see: Wichita State vs. BYU. These are clearly the best two teams in the field, so it’d be fitting for them to end up in the title game. The Cougars averaged 76.5 points per game last season, a mark that ranked 18th in the country, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against an aggressive Wichita State squad that is known for its toughness and intensity on defense.

Five players to watch

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: The top NBA prospect in this field averaged a team-high 13.9 points per game last season and ranked second on the squad in rebounds (5.4). The 6-foot-8 small forward is an incredibly difficult matchup because he spends most of his time outside the paint. Early scored 24 points against Louisville in the NCAA semifinals and was named to the All-Final Four team.

Tyler Haws, BYU: The guard averaged 21.7 points a game last season -- dropping 42 on Virginia Tech -- and 28.8 points in the NIT. Haws is a volume shooter who hoisted 15.9 attempts per game in 2012-13. He connected on 48 percent of his attempts, so for the most part he’s taking quality shots. He’s the type of guy who can beat a team by himself.

Cleveland Melvin, DePaul: The rising junior has hinted on Twitter that the 2013-14 season could be his last before entering the NBA draft. Melvin has certainly posted some head-turning numbers. He averaged 16.6 points a game as a sophomore last season along with a team-high 6.8 boards. Melvin, who is 6-foot-8, averaged 17.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a game as a freshman in 2011-12.

Ioannis Papapetrou, Texas: The 6-8 small forward was one of the few bright spots for Texas last season, when he averaged 8.3 points per game, which makes him the Longhorns’ leading returning scorer. He also snared 4.4 boards per contest. Along with producing on the court, Texas needs Papapetrou to assume more of a leadership role in 2013-14.

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State: The sophomore point guard will be under a lot of scrutiny early in the season as he moves into the starting lineup to replace graduated senior Malcolm Armstead. VanVleet certainly shouldn’t have any jitters. He averaged 16.2 minutes per game last season and logged 23 minutes in Wichita State’s NCAA semifinal loss to Louisville. VanVleet’s transition into a starting role needs to be seamless if the Shockers hope to avoid taking a step back.

Title game prediction: Wichita State over BYU

Along with the confidence gained from last season’s Final Four appearance, the Shockers will have something else going for them in the CBE Classic: home-court advantage. Wichita State already had a lot of supporters in the Kansas City area before last season. That number probably doubled following its magical postseason run. Still, even though the Shockers return four key players, they’ll also be incorporating some new pieces. This is a game BYU can win, especially because of the Cougars’ ability to score and the presence of a marquee player such as Haws. This should be a great game between two strong programs led by two of the country’s most underrated coaches (Wichita State’s Marshall and BYU’s Dave Rose). The Shockers are the slight favorite.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Wichita State over BYU
Jeff Goodman: Texas over Wichita State
Andy Katz: Wichita State over Texas
Myron Medcalf: Wichita State over BYU
Dana O'Neil: Wichita State over BYU

Rapid Reaction: Notre Dame 78, BYU 68

November, 17, 2012
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What it means: An experienced Notre Dame team salvaged a win in New York, after a disappointing loss to Saint Joseph’s the night before.

The No. 20 Fighting Irish (3-1) rallied to beat BYU on Saturday night, 78-68, in the consolation game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The Cougars (2-2) depart New York with a pair of L’s. But they played better against Notre Dame than they did on Friday, when Florida State pounded them by 18 points.

The skinny: Forward Brandon Davies, BYU’s best player, exited less than five minutes in with his second foul, and sat out the rest of the first half. Notre Dame, however, could not take advantage. The Cougars still led 32-31 at intermission.

With the score tied at 40 early in the second half, BYU went on a 9-2 run, taking its largest lead of the game at 49-42. But Notre Dame answered by scoring 12 straight points to make it 54-49 Fighting Irish. The Cougars got the deficit back to two on a couple of occasions, but Notre Dame eventually put them away.

Star watch: Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley, a preseason All-Big East first-team selection, had a double-double at halftime (12 points, 10 rebounds). He finished with 19 points and 13 boards. But he got a lot more help in the second half, particularly from Jerian Grant (19 points) and Eric Atkins (16). The starting backcourt was more aggressive in the second half, and it paid off.

Davies was plagued by foul trouble in the second half, too, picking up his fourth with more than 11 minutes remaining. He finished with 12 points in limited minutes. Sophomore guard Tyler Haws had a team-high 21, and has now scored at least 20 points in all four of the Cougars’ games -- not bad for a guy who spent the past two years in the Philippines on a Mormon mission. But the team needs a third reliable scorer to emerge. Starting point guard Matt Carlino scored just two points.

Number crunch: Notre Dame shot 52.1 percent from the field (25-for-48) and 46.2 percent from beyond the arc (6-for-13). On Friday night, Florida State shot 58 percent from the field (29-for-50) from the field and 55 percent (11-for-20) from beyond the arc. See a trend? BYU needs to ratchet up the defense.

What’s next: Notre Dame will play one more game before Thanksgiving, hosting George Washington on Wednesday.

BYU will also play Wednesday night, at home, versus Texas-San Antonio.

W2W4: Notre Dame vs. BYU

November, 17, 2012
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Here are three things to watch for when No. 20 Notre Dame (2-1) faces BYU (2-1) on Saturday at the Barclays Center, in the consolation game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m., and you can watch the game on truTV.

HANGOVER EFFECT? Both teams are coming off tough losses, in different ways, Friday night. Notre Dame fell in overtime to St. Joseph's, 79-70. BYU was blown out by Florida State, 88-70. Notre Dame blew an eight-point lead with four minutes to play in regulation. BYU, on the other hand, trailed by as many as 27 in the second half.

Which team will bounce back better? Notre Dame played the late game Friday night. The first few minutes could reveal a lot.

THE FIGHTING IRISH: Notre Dame opened the season with home wins against Evansville (by nine) and Monmouth (by 27), before the loss to St. Joe's. It was picked to finish third in the Big East this season, behind only Louisville and Syracuse.

Six-foot-9 senior forward Jack Cooley, a preseason first-team All-Big East selection, is averaging 16.3 points and 11.3 rebounds so far for the Fighting Irish. All five starters are back from last season's NCAA tournament squad, plus they've added 6-foot-10 center Garrick Sherman, a transfer from Michigan State averaging 10.7 points per game off the bench. Size, plus experience, should lead to good things this season.

THE COUGARS: BYU beat Tennessee State (by 15) and Georgia State (by 18) at home, prior to the loss to Florida State. It was picked to finish second in the West Coast Conference this season, behind Gonzaga. Last year was its first in the WCC, and BYU went to the NCAA tournament. (Remember that stunning comeback against Iona in Dayton?)

Six-foot-nine senior forward Brandon Davies is averaging 21 points and 7 rebounds per game thus far. But the Cougars' leading scorer is actually 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Tyler Haws, whos's contributing 22.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per contest. Haws missed the past two seasons, while away on a Mormon mission in the Phillipines. It certainly didn't take him long to get re-acclimated.

ESPN.com's WCC preview

October, 23, 2012
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Before we get to the Blue Ribbon team-by-team previews for the West Coast Conference, here is Eamonn Brennan's quick wind sprint through the league:


Blue Ribbon breakdowns of all nine teams in the WCC:

Brigham Young
Gonzaga
Loyola Marymount
Pepperdine
Portland
Saint Mary's Insider Free
San Diego
San Francisco
Santa Clara

More WCC content:

-- Myron Medcalf's "Five things I can't wait to see" in the West Coast Conference
-- John Gasaway answers five burning questions for the league Insider
-- Brennan's Three Big Things on Gonzaga
-- Medcalf rates and analyzes the nonconference schedules of the WCC
-- Andy Katz on how new-look BYU will remain in contention in the WCC
-- Joel Francisco identifies the top freshmen and potential recruits in the WCC Insider
-- Katz on the new mission rule change by the LDS and how it could affect BYU recruiting
-- ESPN.com's Summer Shootaround preview of the WCC
-- See where Gonzaga, Brigham Young and San Francisco ranked in our "50 in 50" series, which attempted to identify the 50 most successful programs of the past half-century
-- For more coverage of the WCC in the Nation blog, click here.
On Saturday, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints made a rather momentous announcement: Going forward, the minimum age requirement for church members' missions would be lowered. The new rule will allow men to take their missions at age 18, instead of 19, and allows women to embark at age 19, down from 21.

It didn't take long to measure the impact this wholesale change could have on the recruitment and collegiate careers of LDS athletes at all schools, but particularly schools in Utah, and -- most obviously -- Brigham Young. The football team alone has 38 players serving in 17 different missions around the world. The Deseret News's Dick Harmon did the math:
To say this new decision impacts BYU sports is an understatement. It changed the world for LDS athletes who are now 17 and juniors or seniors in high school.

"We've already received tweets from people on this," said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve. "They can go sooner and return sooner and play four straight years."

Which brings us, not for the first time today, to 2013's No. 1 overall recruit, Jabari Parker. Parker is a devout Mormon who listed BYU on his final list of five schools (alongside Duke, Michigan State, Florida and Stanford); Parker's father told ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers his son isn't merely listing BYU as lip service, but genuinely considering Dave Rose's program alongside the rest.

But the new rule might completely change the nature of Parker's recruitment. As NBC's Rob Dauster notes, because the NBA's age minimum merely requires a player to be older than 19 -- it doesn't require one year of college; a year of college is still merely the path of least resistance -- it is conceivable that Parker could choose to embark on his mission after high school and return to the states able to join the NBA draft without ever having played a game of college hoops.

This seems somewhat unlikely, because it would require Parker to interrupt his hoops career at arguably the most inopportune time. Likewise, Parker has yet to commit to a mission in the first place. His most recent predecessor in the "high-profile Mormon athlete" category, former BYU star Jimmer Fredette, chose not to go on a mission, instead playing an uninterrupted four years at the school before heading to the NBA draft. (There has been debate on this among Mormons, with some arguing that Fredette's talent and popularity inherently serve the purpose of his mission.) Parker could choose a similar path. It's possible the new rule will have no influence on his decision either way.

But from a larger perspective, the rule change is bound to revolutionize the way Mormon athletes -- especially those at BYU and Utah, but theoretically at any university -- treat their recruitment and collegiate sports schedules. For the first time, those athletes can avoid the somewhat awkward (but no doubt rewarding) calculus of arriving at school, playing one season, leaving for two years and returning to finish later than most athletes. It's a big deal.

(Thanks to reader Spencer for the tip.)

3-point shot: BYU in on Jabari Parker?

August, 31, 2012
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1. BYU is still a serious contender for the No. 1 player in the country in Jabari Parker. How so? Parker made an unofficial visit to Provo on Thursday and met with coach Dave Rose, according to multiple sources. Parker, who is Mormon, has made multiple unofficial visits to various schools. The 6-foot-8 forward out of Simeon High in Chicago has a laundry list of program that would take him in a second: BYU, DePaul, Duke, Florida, Georgetown, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina and Stanford. But getting Parker on campus for the Cougars is still a major coup. The Cougars have quite a weekend ahead after the football team blasted Washington State in its home opener Thursday: Point guard Nick Emery and center Eric Mika, committed 2013 top-100 players out of Highland (Utah) Lone Peak High, are making official visits

2. Gonzaga coach Mark Few and his wife, Marcy, raised $572,000 at their Coaches vs. Cancer Weekend event to give them an 11-year total of more than $6 million to the American Cancer Society and local cancer-fighting organizations, as well as over $1 million to Camp Goodtimes ($158,000 of the total from this year’s event goes to the camp). Meanwhile, the Zags’ top recruit, 7-1 Polish big man Przemek Karnowski, is due on campus on Sept. 10 after playing for the Polish national team. Karnowski hasn’t played with the current players but that shouldn’t be an issue if he’s as good as advertised. The Zags checked to make sure it was OK that Karnowski delayed in entering the fall semester.

3. Syracuse and Pitt are expected to be a part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in 2013 when they are members of the ACC. There was initial talk of not including them because they were new -- but that was never going to fly. The ACC hasn’t officially decided how it will decide the 12 teams that will go against the 12 from the Big Ten. But one proposal that will be discussed is to pair the top 12 RPI teams from the previous season in the ACC with the 12 Big Ten teams. If that’s the case, the bottom teams will get frozen out. But the ACC will need to let those two teams know as soon as the season ends so that they can prepare their non-conference schedule to omit a Big Ten game.
Back in March of 2011, when Butler and VCU were tearing through the NCAA tournament en route to the most unlikely Final Four of all time, there was no mistaking what such exposure could do for not only both basketball programs but for the schools themselves. In 2006, a George Mason professor ran a study on the post-Final Four Patriots and found that the school had received roughly (ha) $677 million in free advertising, while its admissions inquiries increased by 350 percent. Butler saw similar benefits after its near-national title miss in 2010.

Now, there is even more proof behind the post-athletics success bump: A study by BYU and University of Chicago economists looked at where students send their SAT scores, and what effects athletic success had on those decisions. They discovered that universities received up to 10 percent more scores from potential students when a school "has a stellar year in basketball or football."

BYU itself has experienced a similar boost, arguably thanks to Jimmer Fredette and the widespread publicity that drenched his excellent 2011 season:
Coincidentally, the first-year students now arriving at BYU for orientation are perhaps representative of these findings. This class of students applied to colleges after Jimmermania and BYU’s 2011 run to the Sweet 16. According to the Pope brothers’ analysis, advancing that far in the tournament ordinarily translates to four percent more applicants. BYU’s admissions office actually saw more than that, but is cautious about crediting the increase entirely to Jimmermania.

“There is already a certain type of student that is likely to come here,” Pope said. “But there were probably some on the margin that were choosing between BYU and another school and decided ‘Oh, wow, it’s gonna be fun to be at BYU.’”

None of which is particularly groundbreaking. In fact, Jaren and Devin Pope, the study's authors, have discovered similar links to this trend in the past. But this study, titled "Understanding College Application Decisions: Why College Sports Success Matters" delves far deeper into the demographics involved: out of state students, males, African Americans, and those who played sports in high school are far more likely to send a school their SAT score after a successful sports season. The Popes studied eight years of SAT data, and even broke things down based on achievement. From BYU's story:
For example, one of the questions they asked was whether sports success tends to be more influential among high-achieving or low-achieving students. They found that about two-thirds of this pool of students score below the average SAT score, but even some of the top-performing students were attracted by winning teams.

“There are some really high-quality students that seem to be affected by the sports success,” Pope said.

Which, in a way, is heartening. College sports can feel like a somewhat endless cycle of athletic achievement and monetary largesse, with minimal application to the larger academic communities within which athletic programs reside. Prominent professors often express concerns about this trend, about what it means for higher education. But here is a link -- a tenuous one, perhaps, but a real one nonetheless -- between academic success and increased academic interest at a variety of schools. That's hardly a bad thing. It's a bonus.

Brandon Davies breaks his silence

November, 9, 2011
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Was what happened to Brandon Davies fair?

That question followed BYU's apparently star-crossed 2011 team until Florida knocked Jimmer Fredette & Co. out of the NCAA tournament in the Sweet 16. Davies, as you know, was suspended for the season by the school for having premarital sex with his girlfriend. BYU has a very strict honor code, and Davies vowed to live by the honor code. The argument usually went one of two ways:

1. BYU is admirable for sticking to its customs at the expense of basketball wins.

2. BYU is a crazy place with crazy rules. What are they thinking?

Neither is perfectly true -- there's much more nuance involved -- but more than not I agreed with No. 1. For almost a year, we haven't gotten to hear what Davies himself thinks about all this. He's been kept away from media and hasn't spoken out. But what does he say? Was his BYU punishment fair? On Tuesday, Davies spoke with the media for the first time since the incident:
"I was definitely treated more than fair," he told reporters. "Just to be able to make it back here and be able to be a part of this team again is a blessing to me." [...] He said it "hurt" not being able to help his teammates. "Not just me, but everyone around me," he told reporters. "It's definitely something I'll never forget about and something I never want to do again, so I just use that to drive me in all that I do today."

Davies said he thinks he has changed for the better after his suspension, "but that's up to other people to decide."

"I can't really tell someone that I've changed; it's up to me to show that. Hopefully I'm in the right direction and doing that the best I can."

The thing is, to most of us, Davies doesn't have to change a thing. It's not like he failed a drug test or got caught stealing a laptop from a campus library. He had sex with his girlfriend. You almost want to pat him on the back. "Dude, you're OK. You're not a bad person! I promise!"

But Davies doesn't live by everyone else's code. He lives by his school's -- and by extension his church's -- code of ethics. And a bad decision within that code of ethics caused him to let his teammates down last season. It may also have taught everyone a lesson about what's important in life. Your beliefs? Or your win-loss record? Which was kind of inspiring, in its own way.

But mostly, I bet Davies just wants to put the whole deal behind him. I'd guess that goes for BYU fans, too.

Could BYU excel in the Big 12?

September, 1, 2011
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Most of the criticism of Texas A&M's eventual move to the SEC has dealt with contextual concerns. The Aggies have been criticized for undermining common sense with greed. It has been pilloried for allowing a Texas-related inferiority complex boil over into an Eric Cartman-esque stage exit. ("Screw you guys ... I'm going home.") But the criticism has also touched on what a move to the SEC will do for Texas A&M football. The Aggies aren't exactly a powerhouse these days. Won't wins be even harder to come by in the SEC? And wouldn't that be bad for the program in the long run?

[+] EnlargeJimmer Fredette
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireJimmer Fredette and BYU would have been more visible as a member of the Big 12 last season, but such a move would have consequences for the Cougars.
Now that the Big 12 has reached out to BYU, and BYU hasn't exactly shot down the possibility, I find myself asking the same questions about the Cougars.

To be clear, these questions -- as with anything expansion-related -- should really be asked about football. But let's ignore football for a moment. Let's also ignore all of the various reasons BYU might be averse to joining the Big 12 (its attempts to be independent, its religious and academic cultures, its hoops team's recent move to the West Coast Conference, and so on). For the purposes of this post, let's focus on one thing: Would a move to the Big 12 be good for BYU basketball?

I'm not sure. On one hand, it would surely increase the program's profile. Last season, if hoops fans wanted to watch one of the most popular and entertaining college hoops players in decades (does the name Jimmer Fredette ring any bells?), they had to seek out BYU hoops on obscure cable networks, illegal web streaming services, or YouTube clips. In the Big 12, BYU basketball would be regularly featured during primetime hoops viewing like ESPN's Big Monday and CBS' weekend offerings. Its large and diffuse fan base would have the opportunity to see many more of its games, and the school would surely attract some casual fans along the way.

But would it actually win? In recent years, at least, it seems so. The past three seasons, BYU has finished No. 21, No. 10 and No. 13 in Ken Pomeroy's final adjusted efficiency rankings. In 2009 and 2010, BYU would have had a better adjusted efficiency profile (and yes, adjusted means "adjusted to competition") than all but three Big 12 teams. In 2011, by Ken's metric, the Cougars were better than every Big 12 team but Kansas and Texas. That recent run of success is hard to isolate from the Jimmer Era, but there's little reason to expect a total drop-off in overall quality, especially relative to, say, the average Big 12 team.

The only question is whether BYU is actually better off playing its regular seasons on the fringes. Which is better for a program like BYU? To try to schedule the nonconference as well as possible, then dominate the WCC on the way to a stockpile of wins and consistent NCAA tournament berths? Or is it better to fight tooth and nail with the big dogs in the Big 12? The former option -- thanks to the temerity of high-major teams in scheduling quality mid-major foes -- is more limited. But the latter option -- thanks to the unique challenges of recruiting at a place like BYU -- might be far more difficult.

I'm not sure there's a "right" answer. Nor will basketball factor much in whatever BYU decides to do. But any football-driven decision could have a major impact on the way we see BYU basketball in the coming years. Will BYU be a quasi-mid-major with quirky national cachet, or a high-major player with a unique competitive challenge? Can Cougars hoops hack it, year in and year out, in a league where making the tournament isn't a cause for celebration but the minimum requirement for a program's viability?

If you're a BYU fan, which would you prefer?
Five observations from the week that was:

1. The No. 1 spot remains as unstable as ever. If you haven’t gotten this memo by now, then I’m not sure you’ve been paying attention. So let’s reiterate: There is no such thing, at least right now, as “the best team in the country.” There are only the best teams. They are, in some order: Ohio State, Kansas, Pittsburgh, Texas, Duke, and maybe (depending on whether you buy the Cougars or not) BYU. The constant evolution of the No. 1 ranking this season is proof enough -- we’re about to have our fourth straight week with a different No. 1. Of course, that wasn’t our only elite intrigue this week: Texas fell at Colorado on Saturday and Pittsburgh fell in overtime at Louisville (more on this below).

I still think, if forced to pick, that Ohio State is the best team and most deserving of the No. 1 rank. The Buckeyes are tied for the fewest losses of any of the five, and those two losses (Wisconsin and Purdue are two top-10 teams with undefeated home records) are distinctly “better” than those nagging the Jayhawks, Blue Devils, Panthers, Longhorns and Cougars. Frankly, you can argue Ohio State never should have lost its ranking in the first place. But the Bucks have plenty of flaws -- depth and high pick-and-roll defense, among them -- and remain just as capable of losing on the road to inferior opponents as any other ostensible Final Four contender in the country.

[+] EnlargeXavier's Tu Holloway
AP Photo/Skip PetersonAfter looking mediocre in the nonconference, Tu Holloway and Xavier are rolling again.
Which brings us back to the original point: No team this season is clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the elite. Whether this means there are no great teams -- the favorite cliche of college hoops pundits everywhere -- or a handful of great teams presiding over a deeper and more consistent college hoops landscape is up for debate. What seems more certain is that this year’s national title won’t be the result of a barnstorming run by a team clearly better than its contemporaries. In the end, if any of these teams wins the national title, it will be thanks more to matchups and seeding than any obvious unstoppable dominance. Frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2. All Xavier does is win. The Musketeers haven’t gotten a ton of national acclaim this season, primarily because they looked barely mediocre for much of the nonconference season. Once A-10 play began, though, Xavier has resembled the program we’ve come to know over the past decade, the one with three consecutive Sweet 16 appearances. Xavier has lost but one game in conference play, a weird, out-of-character performance at Charlotte. After Sunday’s win at Dayton, it is now 13-1 in the league and has proven for the third straight year that it’s never wise to doubt Xavier’s eventual tourney readiness no matter the level of turnover in the program. Thanks in large part to the brilliant guard play of Tu Holloway -- like Jordan Crawford, yet another Kelvin Sampson recruit that landed a few hundred miles east in Cincinnati – second-year coach Chris Mack has picked up right where his predecessors Thad Matta and Sean Miller left off. There’s no reason to doubt these Musketeers. Ever.

3. The Big East is more likely than ever to get 11 teams in the tournament. This started as a lark. It is now an eminent reality. How do you know the Big East has had a great season? On Feb. 20, eight teams -- as many as any conference has ever sent to the NCAA tournament, and yes that conference was the Big East -- were locks or near-locks in basically everyone’s bracket. The only stragglers remaining at the start of the week were West Virginia, Cincinnati and Marquette, three teams with variously strong bubble résumés, all of whom needed another win -- whether to hold serve or make a statement -- to ensure inclusion in the tourney field on March 13. All of them did so. West Virginia beat Notre Dame last Saturday. Cincinnati won three games in a row, including a win over Louisville and a road win at Georgetown. And Marquette went into Connecticut and escaped with a signature overtime victory in front of a stunned XL Center crowd. Barring something unexpected, all three will be dancing this season. As a result, the Big East will get 11 teams in the 2011 NCAA tournament. And deservedly so.

4. Virginia Tech still isn’t there yet. No one likes to be a party pooper -- I can only assume Hokies fans are still partying even as this post is being published, and why not? -- but it should be noted that Seth Greenberg’s team, which basked Saturday in proclamations that its 64-60 win over Duke was a bid-sealer, still has to finish the season strong if it wants to get in the NCAA tournament. Virginia Tech’s RPI is still a little shaky. Its only other top-50 win came over Florida State, which barely counts; the Seminoles have hovered in the mid-50s in the RPI for much of the season. The sweep at the hands of Virginia and the loss at Georgia Tech are definite black marks. Tech can’t afford to slip up down the stretch, especially since its past two games come against fellow ACC bubble teams Boston College (at home) and at Clemson.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Rick Pitino
Jamie Rhodes/US PRESSWIRERick Pitino was none too pleased that his team received a technical foul for the overzealous and little-too-early celebration of a cheerleader.
In other words, yes, Tech’s win over Duke was huge, and it will likely see them through to the tournament. But the Hokies’ margin for error, even in its vastly diminished state, is still alive and well.

5. Note to cheerleaders everywhere: Double-check the clock before you rush the court. Fortunately, one Louisville cheerleader learned this lesson the hard way, so you don’t have to. Yes, this happened: The Cardinals, up three with seconds ticking off the clock in their 62-59 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, managed to avoid Pitt’s attempts at a foul in time for guard Kyle Kuric to seal the win with a last-second dunk. The dunk did two things. One: It put Louisville up by five points with less than one second remaining. And two: It caused one of Louisville’s male cheerleaders to leap onto the court, grab the ball and toss it into the air like Michael Jordan after an NBA title. The problem? There was still time left on the clock. The referees awarded Pittsburgh with two technical foul shots, which Ashton Gibbs promptly sank. That gave Pittsburgh 0.5 seconds to go the length of the court and chuck a 3, which Gibbs got after a perfect inbounds pass provided a relatively decent look inside the halfcourt line as time expired. The shot missed -- barely -- and the cheerleader (noticeably shaken on TV, the poor guy) survived unscathed. After the game, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, “All good things have to come to an end, and the male cheerleader has come to an end [at Louisville].” He was joking. I think.
BYU CelebrationAP Photo/Lenny IgnelziDo the Cougars deserve to be a No. 1 seed in March?
Well ... do you?

Barring an unforeseen loss down the stretch -- BYU still has games versus New Mexico and Wyoming, as well as the Mountain West tournament, which is likely to feature a rematch with San Diego State -- that might become the most pertinent and challenging question the NCAA tournament selection committee has to answer as it seeds and selects the field March 13. Does BYU deserve a No. 1 seed? If so, why? If not, why not?

It's also a question for bracket-obsessed college hoops fans: How far will you have BYU advancing when it comes time to put down the pencil and pick up the pen? With Jimmer Fredette at the helm, following an impressive nationally televised road win over a top-10 team, are you all-in on the Cougars?

Saturday afternoon, in an attempt to see what people thought about the seeding question, I conducted an informal poll on Twitter. The results? Undecided. Some said "absolutely." Others were baffled I even asked in the first place. ("Uh, no" was a common response.)

Frankly, it's a bit of a unfair question. There are at least five legitimate competitors for the four No. 1 seeds, all of whom could still make a claim at a spot on the top line. (And yes, Texas' chances took a major hit Saturday with a loss to Colorado, but a strong finish in the Big 12 tournament could still keep the Longhorns alive.) The dynamic between late-season play and overall body of work is going to play a major role, and conference tournament results could be deciding factors between the slimmest of profile differences on Selection Sunday. The chase, as they say, is on.

Maybe a more pertinent poll, then, would have gone something like this: How far are you riding the Jimmer train? Do you think BYU is a legitimate national title contender? Or do you think the Cougars are ripe for an upset on the first or second week of the tournament?

Let's go to the tape. For starters, here are some reasons BYU die-hards and bandwagon riders might cite to back up their enthusiasm:

  • BYU has Jimmer. Jimmer is really, really good. Far worse teams than this one -- think Davidson with Stephen Curry -- have ridden singular stars to deep tournament runs before. Guard play is an all-important factor in the college game and especially in the NCAA tournament.
  • The rest of the Cougars are pretty good themselves, and when teams focus too much on Fredette, complementary pieces like Jackson Emery, Noah Hartsock, Brandon Davies and Charles Abouo can hurt you inside and out. Also, with Davies patrolling the paint, the Cougars are more athletic and tougher defensively than in years past.
  • BYU's schedule (strength of schedule: 14) and conference (the Mountain West) are not nearly as bad as you'd typically expect from a non-power-six team. The "they haven't played anyone" rap doesn't apply this year.
  • The Cougars have some impressive performance-based statistics to back up that gaudy record, and they aren't just an offensive juggernaut. Dave Rose's squad entered Saturday as the No. 7-ranked team in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy, thanks to some highly efficient traits on both ends of the floor. The Cougars don't necessarily need to shoot the lights out to win, either. In fact, their best offensive factor is that low turnover rate -- 15.5 as of this writing -- that ranks them No. 3 in the nation overall.
  • Oh, and BYU has Jimmer. He's pretty good. Did I mention that already?

So, yes, there are a lot of reasons to like this BYU team in your bracket. But detractors and disbelievers have their reasons, too:

  • [+] EnlargeBilly White and Jimmer Fredette
    AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziBilly White and the Aztecs were able to limit Jimmer Fredette's production on Saturday.
    Who has BYU really beaten? Cougars fans won't like this argument, but it isn't entirely far-fetched, and it hinges on how good you think the Aztecs -- and the other top teams in the Mountain West -- really are. If you think San Diego State is a tad overrated (again, not far-fetched, based on what we saw Saturday afternoon), then you might not be all that enthusiastic about the Cougars' two wins over SDSU, which are basically BYU's best wins of the season. The other top-50 RPI wins all either came against UNLV, Colorado State, Utah State or Arizona. If you think San Diego State is as good as advertised, then you might not mind all this. But if you have your questions -- not to mention the sinking feeling that Saturday's game didn't look like two No. 1 seed, Final Four-caliber contenders -- then BYU's record doesn't do much to salve those concerns.
  • If Brigham Young goes cold, the Cougars could be vulnerable. No, BYU doesn't live and die by the 3-pointer -- see that second-to-last bullet above -- but they do excel when they're sticking open 3s, and they do take their fair share. About 36 percent of the Cougars' field goal attempts are 3s, which ranks them in the top 100 percentage-wise nationally. That's not a ton, but it's not a small mark, and if the Cougars hit a freak slump in the tournament, a huge chunk of their offense goes by the wayside.
  • Jimmer can be guarded by athletic opponents. BYU doubters (and Nolan Smith/Kemba Walker/Jared Sullinger player of the year advocates) have used this to justify all sorts of things this season, from why Jimmer shouldn't be player of the year (he only beats up on weak competition!) to why BYU isn't the real deal. I don't agree. Jimmer has scored against pretty much everyone throughout his career, and last season's 37-point performance against Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament speaks to that. But Saturday's game did lend some credence to this theory. When Jimmer was guarded by Billy White -- SDSU's long, strong stretch wing -- he went 3-13 from the field and 0-of-7 on isolation plays, according to ESPN Research. When Jimmer was guarded by anyone else, he went 5-of-10 and scored 17 of his 25 points. If BYU meets a team with an athletic, intelligent defender that can make things difficult for Jimmer without needing a double-team -- these sorts of players don't grow on trees, but there will be more than a few of them in the bracket -- then BYU's offense could stagnate.
  • The eye test. I hate the eye test, but if you doubt the Cougars, your eyes probably have something to do with it. Ask a casual fan to watch BYU -- my roommates are a pretty good example -- and they often come away unimpressed. Whether fair or unfair, they might have a point. Is BYU really good enough to hang with, say, Kansas? Pittsburgh? Ohio State?
  • We've been here before, and BYU has let us down both times, a trend ESPN Insider's John Gasaway noted all the way back in early January. Insider Yes, this team is better than either of the past two seasons. But Jimmer hasn't exactly come out of nowhere. He's been a top player for three seasons in Provo, and BYU has been impressive on a per-possession basis in each of those seasons. And yet, in March, the Cougars have disappointed. In 2009, BYU ended the season ranked No. 21 in the nation in adjusted efficiency; that team lost in the first-round to Texas A&M. Last season, BYU finished 30-6 and ranked No. 10 in adjusted efficiency; the Cougars didn't make it past the first weekend. That might be coincidence more than anything. The tournament is a pretty small sample size, and BYU did lose to Kansas State in 2010, a team that eventually went all the way to the Elite Eight. But it does raise concerns, a little like Wisconsin, that this efficient, impressive regular season team can't translate that success to college basketball's biggest stage. That goes for the entire Mountain West, actually. As Gasaway noted, since 2000 the MWC has sent 26 teams to the NCAA tournament. Only two of them have made it to Sweet 16.

In the end, as it always does, BYU's chances of making a deep tourney run will come down to matchups, seeding and location. Your bracket projections might have to be adjusted accordingly.

My answer? I buy the Cougars. I'm not worried about a relative lack of postseason success in the past. Nor am I particularly concerned about a batch of cold shooting. Yes, Jimmer & Co. could go cold in the tournament, but you could say that about any team. And I'm not one to poke holes in BYU's schedule. The Mountain West has been solid all season, and at some point, you have to give a team credit for winning the games it has won. It's not easy to get to 27 wins -- or 30 wins, or whatever BYU will end up with this season -- no matter who you play. And BYU has played plenty of tough teams.

As we've learned multiple times this season, it's never a good idea to doubt The Jimmer. Nor is it wise to sleep on Jimmer's supporting cast.

Your results may vary, but right now, I'm banging Jim Cramer's "buy buy buy!" button to annoying effect. Be skeptical if you want, but don't be surprised when the Cougars prove you wrong in the tournament. You were warned.
Some scattered reflections on what turned out to be a rather tremendous afternoon of college hoops (Cory Joseph bobbleheads sold separately):

  • Gonzaga gets its much-needed win. Forget an NCAA tournament at-large bid. For now, Gonzaga just needed to see something positive happen on the basketball court. The Zags have been battered and bloodied by their brutal non-league schedule, going 5-5 in their first 10 games and losing to basically every competent opponent they have played. So this was a huge win, not only because it helps salvage Gonzaga's flagging at-large tourney hopes, but because sometimes you just need to see the ball go in the basket. With Steven Gray sidelined by back cramps, Gonzaga got a neutral-court win over an unbeaten and athletic top-10 team. Quality stuff, and just in time.
  • [+] EnlargeUIC Flames
    AP Photo/Charles CherneyThe UIC flames upset No. 14 Illinois Saturday as the Illini managed a paltry 18-for-55 on the night.
    Illinois falls to ... wait, is that scoreboard right? You can be forgiven for not believing your eyes on this one, but there it is, plain as day: The 14th-ranked Fighting Illini did indeed fall to the 4-7 University of Illinois-Chicago Flames at the United Center on Saturday. It's rather remarkable, actually, because this UIC team is not a sleeper NCAA squad, or an undefeated-but-hard-to-gauge foe like Cleveland State. The Flames have a host of bad losses to their name, including one to Northern Illinois earlier this week. The Illini were, to this point, rolling right along. There were few causes for long-term concern regarding Bruce Weber's team before Saturday, though one involved the Illini's penchant for long two-point jumpers, statistically the least efficient shot on the court. Illinois needed to shoot more 3-pointers. The problem against UIC wasn't the attempts (18) but the makes (a mere four). I'm not sure you want to worry too much about Illinois going forward, because, hey, bad losses happen. But the Illini do have plenty of offensive improvements to make to ensure bad teams like UIC can't keep up with them on neutral floors this season.
  • Who's worried about the Kansas State Wildcats? No one likes Chicken Little, so I'll reserve the whole sky-is-falling routine for more dire circumstances. But it's probably time to be at least somewhat concerned with Kansas State's slow start. Against a Florida team that also had not proved much early in the season, the Wildcats stormed out to an early lead in Sunrise, Fla., only to follow it with one of the worst second-half performances you'll see all season. After halftime, the Gators shot 60 percent (15-for-25 from the field), which would have been nice enough on its own. But when you cause your opponent -- or your opponent causes itself, or some combination therein -- to shoot 6-for-28 and score a mere 21 points in 20 minutes, 60 percent shooting might as well be 100. Frank Martin's team led 23-8 at one point and then totally broke down in this one. At this point you have to wonder whether K-State isn't just playing poorly, but whether it's not nearly as good as we all assumed this offseason. There's still plenty of time to figure all this out, and plenty of time for the Wildcats to change their season's trajectory again. But for now, games like Saturday's are disconcerting.
  • Everyone wins in Greensboro. How does everyone win in a basketball game, exactly? When the better team wins, but both teams compete at a high level, show noticeable improvement and improve their standing in front of an eager college hoops public. Both Texas and North Carolina performed as such Saturday. The young and talented Longhorns got what was essentially a road win in a hostile environment. The young and talented -- but oftentimes confused -- Tar Heels played a quality opponent to the wire, got key contributions from Harrison Barnes (especially a pretty last-minute 3 to tie the game, just before Cory Joseph's jumper gave Texas the win) and Kendall Marshall. Marshall's big play is especially encouraging for a team that has lacked consistency at the point guard spot. At this point, though he may do so like a reluctant father buying his teenage son a car, Roy Williams needs to the keys over to Marshall and see whether he's ready to drive. That may or may not be a mixed metaphor. The important part is that it's true. When he does so, UNC appears to be the second-best team in the ACC, and we would not have said as much two weeks ago.
  • Other games and performances of note: Michigan handled that tough Oakland team in Ann Arbor. We might need to start giving the Wolverines a little more attention as a potential NCAA tournament team out of the Big Ten ... Jared Sullinger again went nuts, scoring 30 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in a performance that caused our own Doug Gottlieb to call Sullinger the best player in the country. At this point, who else has done more? ... BYU lost its unbeaten record, falling to UCLA at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, as the Bruins' thus far schizophrenic season took another strange (but encouraging) turn ... Georgetown shot 78 percent (!) in the first half against Loyola (Md.) ... Josh Selby's first game as a Jayhawk was a tempered success: Selby scored with ease and hit big shots down the stretch, but his style seemed to clash with KU's pass-heavy system in a tight home win over USC ... UCF stayed unbeaten with a win over Miami, and it's officially time to start calling the Knights a NCAA-tourney candidate ... and Cleveland State, playing in its first "Are they real or not?" game of the season, was dealt a loss at West Virginia, but the Vikings acquitted themselves well until the Mountaineers pulled away in the second half. Their games against Butler in the Horizon League will be fun to watch.

Best Case/Worst Case: Mountain West

September, 3, 2010
9/03/10
2:25
PM ET
The ESPN.com summer previewing tour continues again this week with Summer Shootaround, our exhaustive look at key college hoops conferences. In addition to helping out with the Shootarounds, yours truly will be adding some related commentary on the blog. Today: a best-case/worst-case look at the Mountain West.

AIR FORCE

Best case: What happens when an already bad team suffers a handful of injuries? In the case of the 2009-10 Air Force Falcons, what happened was a 1-15 finish in the Mountain West and a whole mess of red numbers where Ken Pomeroy's tempo-free profile was concerned. (Just look at all that red! Oof.) Believe it or not, though, a one-win MWC season was actually an improvement over the Falcons' 0-16 mark in 2008-09. Air Force doesn't have much in the way of incoming talent, and leap-ready junior center Sammy Schafer will miss the 2010-11 season while he recovers from a concussion in his home state of Oregon. In other words, these Falcons will be lucky to get more than a few conference wins, and another season at the bottom of the heap seems imminent.

Worst case: There are all sorts of snarky things you could write about a team that's won one conference game in the past two seasons. You can't get much lower than that. But since the Air Force Academy trains noble and hardworking American pilots in the art of flying super-awesome weapons of war into dangerous and hostile situations, I'll save the snark for later. The Air Force rules, even if its basketball team doesn't. (And, jokes aside, worst-case scenario is another winless conference season. That one's obvious.)

BYU

Best case: Jimmer Fredette thought long and hard about leaving for the NBA. He tested the waters, spent time at a few camps, and no doubt had heard plenty of enticing things ... but in the end chose to withdraw his name and return to BYU. Cougars fans are awfully pleased about that. Fredette is one of the best players in the country, an offensive weapon that shoots at a high rate, doesn't turn the ball over, assists teammates frequently, draws a bunch of fouls while rarely committing any of his own, and rightfully dominates BYU's ultra-fast attack. He's a joy to watch. If several players adapt to their expanded roles, you can go ahead and notch BYU for another NCAA tournament bid. But this time, the Cougars will want more.

Worst case: Of course, there are questions about this BYU team. Those questions involve everyone not named Fredette. Jonathan Tavernari graduated, Tyler Haws left for a Mormon mission and Michael Loyd Jr. said farewell to the program. Into their place steps a solid, but somewhat new supporting class. Forwards Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies will look to replace Tavernari's production. Chris Collinsworth and Nick Martineau have returned from their Mormon missions, and should incorporate themselves quickly, while freshman Kyle Collinsworth will look to replace Haws and Lloyd in the backcourt. Will that transition hamper BYU's tournament efforts? A first-round loss would make for another nice but ultimately disappointing season; even with all the new faces, that's probably the worst (or, I guess, best) BYU's MWC competitors can hope for.

COLORADO STATE

Best case: We don't spend much time thinking about Colorado State basketball, and lately, that apathy has been justified. The Rams went 0-16 in the Mountain West in 2007-08 and, until last season, failed to win more than six conference games in any season since 2000. But this might be the right time to give coach Tim Miles' team more than a passing nod. CSU went 7-9 in the Mountain West in 2009-10 (and, no small feat, qualified for the College Basketball Invitational, the program's first postseason adventure since 2003) thanks to an above-average defense and the capable play of junior forwards Travis Franklin and Andy Ogide. Both return for 2010-11, as does nearly every Ram worth noting. This veteran group will be looking to claw its way out of the lower third of the MWC in a major, plus-.500 sort of way, and it appears to have the talent to do so.

Worst case: As with any senior-driven team, the risk is that the Rams will fail to improve. It's not that they'll get worse, per se, it's just that they might not take the mythical step forward everyone seems to associate with returning players almost regardless of age. If that happens, Colorado State will be back to the drawing board, and Miles will have little to show for his team's consistent improvement during his tenure.

NEW MEXICO

Best case: Junior college transfer Darington Hobson took over the Mountain West in almost no time at all. The athletic forward did a bit of everything for the surprising Lobos and quickly worked his way into conference player of the year awards and an NBA draft selection in June. That's the kind of hole you don't quickly fill. Unless, of course, you're Steve Alford, who managed to wrangle two high-profile transfers this offseason, both of whom -- UCLA forward Drew Gordon and Tennessee forward Emmanuel Negedu -- were highly recruited out of high school. (Gordon came to New Mexico after clashing with UCLA coach Ben Howland; Negedu collapsed during a workout at Tennessee, had a defibrillator implanted in his heart, and found UNM to be one of the schools willing to clear him to play.) That frontcourt would be scary in any conference. In the Mountain West, it should dominate. And with senior point guard Dairese Gary back in command, the Hobson-less Lobos might even be better than last season.

Worst case: Of course, there are risks associated with New Mexico's new talent, risks Alford knows all too well. Gordon was unable to get along with teammates and coaches at UCLA. Negedu is enough of a health risk that even the slightest sign of heart trouble will likely end his career. (When talent-bereft Indiana tells a talented player it can't clear him, you know the player's health is risky, to say the least.) Alford was willing to take risks on players at Iowa, and those risks didn't always pan out. Pierre Pierce says hello. In any case, New Mexico's new talent will have to pan out if the Lobos plan on recreating last season's 30-5 season. If it doesn't, Alford's surging program could be due for a hasty backslide.

SAN DIEGO STATE

Best case: San Diego State might be this conference's best team. Considering the return of Jimmer Fredette and the talent available to Alford at UNM, that's saying something. Sophomore Kawhi Leonard is one of the best college basketball players you've never heard of, an irrepressible rebounder and top-notch defender who, with just a bit more offensive efficiency, might end up being the best player in the league. San Diego State returns basically everyone from last season's MWC-tournament winning team, including Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and D.J. Gay. The Aztecs had to fight to get into the NCAA tournament last season, but that shouldn't be a problem this time. Once they get there, they'll be looking to do a whole lot more than fight. That shouldn't be a problem, either.

Worst case: It's hard to fathom this team taking a step back, but the difference between NCAA tournament participant and NIT invitee can be razor-thin in the Mountain West. SDSU will have to fight off two very good teams at the top of its conference to assert its superiority. Failing that, the Aztecs might have to beat nonconference foes like Gonzaga and Saint Mary's (which, unfortunately, are not battles for the future of BYU's WCC-bound basketball team) and establish themselves as worthy of an at-large bid, even if the conference title goes wanting. Such is the life of a putative mid-major on the rise: You can't afford slip-ups, even if you're this good.

TCU

Best case: The Horned Frogs are nobody's idea of a basketball power, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. The good news is the return of junior point guard Ronnie Moss, who led the team in scoring in 2009-10. TCU also has Virginia Tech transfer Hank Thorns -- a potential all-name all-star, at least -- becoming eligible this fall, which will give coach Jim Christian another guard to round out his lineup. Christian would also do well to focus on his team's interior defense: The Horned Frogs allowed opponents to shoot an effective field goal percentage of 53.0 in 2009-10, good for a No. 323 national rank. (Opponents were especially deadly from inside the arc, where TCU allowed an eFG of 53.8 percent, nearly the worst in all of college hoops.) TCU won five conference games in 2009-10, which is something to build on. If that defense gets even marginally better, and Thorns can make some sort of impact, the Frogs could be more competitive than at any time since their leap to the conference in 2006.

Worst case: It wasn't just interior defense that held back TCU in 2009-10, though. The Horned Frogs allowed their opponents to shoot pretty much whenever they pleased, sure, but they also didn't force turnovers and, strangely enough, committed a ton of fouls in the process. (Usually, when you're gambling on that many fouls, you'd think at least a few turnovers would follow. Apparently not.) There is much to shore up here, and if TCU continues to play this brand of defensive basketball, it's likely in store for a fifth straight sub-14-win season.

UNLV

Best case: The Rebels' 2010-11 prospectus is pretty easy to figure. It comes down to Tre'Von Willis. Willis was arrested on charges of domestic battery by strangulation and grand larceny, as well as a misdemeanor charge of coercion, in late June. His lawyer recently entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, in the meantime telling media that Willis would be back in time for a productive senior season. Even if that seems unlikely -- Willis' first court date is Nov. 22, and coach Lon Kruger has remained mum on the subject -- UNLV fans better hope Willis' lawyer has information they don't. If Willis is in the lineup, he presents an athletic and efficient scoring and rebounding threat, the perfect centerpiece to a talented UNLV team that has its eye on the top of the conference in 2010-11.

Worst case: If Willis doesn't play, those hopes are probably dashed. To be sure, UNLV's supporting cast can play. Chace Stanback, the team's leader in rebounds and steals, could become an elite defender. Oscar Bellfield is a capable (though not ideally efficient) long-range shooter, and sophomore guard Anthony Marshall could be one of the league's elite perimeter defenders if he makes major strides from his freshman season. But even so, without Willis this group goes from potential conference champion to a fourth- or fifth-place finish faster than you can say "misdemeanor charge of coercion." (See what I did there?) Willis is the key. Stay tuned.

UTAH

Best case: Utah coach Jim Boylen is positively ecstatic about his program's move to the Pac-10, and why wouldn't he be? Almost overnight, His job went from good-but-not-great Mountain West job to in-demand major conference gig. In the meantime, though, Boylen's team is still rebuilding. Fortunately, the Utes gained a handful of junior college transfers in the offseason, any of whom could play immediate roles as contributors in Utah's holdover year. The most likely candidate is point guard Josh Watkins, who averaged 15 points per game at Howard College last season. Center David Foster is an impressive interior piece. If the JC prospects pan out, Boylen's last season before the Pac-10 transition could be a surprisingly un-terrible one.

Worst case: More likely, though, is a rebuilding year, one easily forgotten by the Ute faithful. Boylen lost a variety of players from last season's 14-17 squad thanks to defections, and returns only one of his top five scorers, senior Jay Watkins. Carlon Brown, Marshall Henderson and Luka Drca all averaged double figures in 2009-10, and though Drca's graduation was a known concern, Brown and Henderson's departures were the kind you can't plan for. In other words, it's fair to expect a season worse than last year's campaign, which did after all include a win over Illinois and two over UNLV. But with the Pac-10 -- and all its recruiting power -- on the horizon, who cares?

WYOMING

Best case: There is good news for the Wyoming Cowboys, and it is this: Afam Muojeke, a 6-foot-7 junior swingman, was averaging 17.9 points per game before a knee injury and subsequent surgery ended his season in late January. In his absence, freshman Desmar Jackson led the team in points and sophomore A.J. Davis played a nice complimentary role. With all three on the court, Wyoming should be more competitive than last season's three-win conference season. Best case is a nice bump into the middle of the Mountain West, and all the spoils that could bring in whatever future the post-realignment Mountain West ends up having.

Worst case: With Muojeke, UW's dismal offense should improve, but the defense is just as much a concern. More than anything, though, what the Cowboys need are some shooters. Wyoming's effective field goal percentage in 2009-10 was just 46.7 percent, which ranked it No. 262 in the country. Its 3-point percentage was a dismal 26.0, making it the second-worst 3-point shooting team in the country. If coach Heath Schroyer plans to avoid another 10-21 campaign, the Cowboys will have to add some perimeter help to Muojeke and Jackson's offensive skill.

BYU in the WCC? Hmmm

September, 1, 2010
9/01/10
10:47
AM ET
In the near future, the Brigham Young basketball Cougars are going to be playing said basketball in the West Coast Conference. This ... intrigues me.

First off, if you're interested in how things came to this -- the BYU/Mountain West/Western Athletic/West Coast expansion stories have been a confusing whirlwind to me -- be sure to read Andy Katz's story, which essentially broke today's BYU news last night. And for the football repercussions, check out my counterpart in the alternate dimension that is College Football Nation, Andrea Adelson, who has a collection of informative thoughts on the subject.

But what we're interested in is college basketball. To that end, it's difficult to say whether this is a wholly positive step for BYU hoops. But it's also hard to see it as a negative. Sure, the WCC is filled with teams whose arenas don't come close to the Mountain West's average hoops home, and BYU is going to be playing in front of high school-esque crowds for much of its regular season. Can BYU put together a schedule tough enough to keep it among the nation's elite? Can it dominate the conference enough to be consistently considered one of the best mid-majors in the country? (And now that it's in the WCC, is BYU actually, like, a real mid-major?)

There's another school who willingly plows that path each year: Gonzaga. Granted, the schools are vastly different. BYU has a massive football program and 30,000 undergraduates; Gonzaga doesn't field a football team and has just under 5,000 students on campus. But if we're speaking strictly about basketball, there's no reason why BYU can't become another Gonzaga in Gonzaga's own conference. Head coach Dave Rose has established the Cougars as one of the nation's better non-Big Six teams over the past five years. With that (assumed) extra football revenue, Brigham Young has no shortage of resources at its disposal.

The challenge then, is in mimicking the Gonzaga model well. The Zags have built themselves from plucky mid-major to elite national program; until BYU does the same, the Cougars will find it more difficult to schedule. Actually, correction: They'll find it difficult anyway. But if BYU can reasonably recreate what Gonzaga does, the Cougars' basketball program doesn't need to take a plunge into sub-red line mediocrity. And the WCC should be more entertaining than ever.

I'm not sure if that's a win-win, or if BYU hoops fans are jazzed about taking on the likes of Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara each year, but at the very least, it doesn't have to be a bad thing. I think.

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