Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Importance of an NCAA Tournament Win

BYU basketball coach Dave Rose recently announced new recruits signed to letters of intent to join the Cougars. Conspicuously absent from that list was Brad Garrett.

Brad Garrett just finished his freshman season at the College of Southern Idaho. He was highly recruited, but his family and friends expected him to go to BYU--he even played one year in high school for current BYU assistant coach John Warden. However, he surprised people by signing with Oklahoma State instead.

Why didn't he choose the Cougars? I will go out on a limb and speculate that he saw a solid program at Oklahoma State, one that has made a couple of trips to the Final Four in this generation. When he looked at BYU, he saw a team that underachieved in the NCAA Tournament, losing the one game they played after leading at halftime.

I argued in January regarding the value of a bowl win to the football program. I think a victory in the NCAA Tournament may hold similar significance to the basketball team.

While Steve Cleveland was head basketball coach at BYU, the Cougars were able to sign every LDS player they targeted. I can remember one player who Cleveland didn't recruit despite some impressive scoring from the point guard position, and it is possible that he had been told not to bother, because that player had always wanted to go to Utah. It is also possible that Cleveland felt that a scoring point guard wasn't as high a priority as the other players he was recruiting. Regardless of the reason, it remains true that I did not once hear of BYU missing out on an LDS recruit once Coach Cleveland got the program going again.

However, the Cougars couldn't get past the first round in the NCAA Tournament. Admittedly, the deck was stacked against them--each time they were invited, they were paired with previous Final Four entrants, with two of the three opponents actually having won the National Championship. And they lost each time, despite valiant efforts in 2003 and 2004. Any potential recruit might reasonably conclude that if BYU got a break, they would end their Tournament woes, and that their decision to attend BYU might help the Cougars to do just that.

But this year was different. This year, they got an eighth seed. An argument could be made for them being granted a higher seed, but they didn't win their conference championship at UNLV despite leading at halftime. It could once again be said that they were being given a raw deal by being matched with Xavier, a school only two hours away from the tournament site. Xavier also had a history of knocking off higher seeds. Nevertheless, the Cougars had a winning conference record on the road, including winning at Air Force when there was nothing really on the line except pride.

BYU led at halftime against Xavier, but they couldn't hold the lead. Not only could they not maintain the lead, but they seemed to fall apart at the end of the game. Coach Rose said they gave their all, but that didn't seem to be the case, especially based on the aforementioned conference success on the road. An anticipated matchup with the top team in the country (awaiting the victor) also apparently wasn't enough motivation to find their best game.

Thus, a great year finished on a couple of negative notes, first because they lost their conference championship when they led at halftime, and second because they could not redeem themselves with a win against a team that they obviously could have beaten, despite a great deal on the line.

And so what looked like progression from the Steve Cleveland years was perhaps not so, and a player that, by all accounts, should have ended up in a BYU uniform, did not. BYU needs to prove they can win with the players they have, before they will get all the players they want.

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