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BYU basketball: Cougars face "underrated" UTA in NIT opener

Published March 15, 2017 11:40 am
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Tuesday night was disastrous for No. 3 seeds in the NIT, as the opening-round saw No. 3 Utah fall to Boise State, No. 3 Alabama fall to Richmond and No. 3 Indiana fall to Georgia Tech.

The only No. 3 seed remaining?


The Cougars (22-11) play host to No. 6 UT Arlington tonight at the Marriott Center. Tipoff time has been moved back to 9 p.m.

Here's my advance of tonight's game, obviously focused on how the Cougars will be without star guard Elijah Bryant. The sophomore re-injured his knee against Saint Mary's and is done for the season.

It's devastating news for the Cougars, who are hoping to repeat last year's run to New York City's Madison Square Garden in the NIT, but were already thin to begin with. The over-under on BYU bench scoring tonight is probably zero, if Vegas had such a thing.

Davin Guinn will start in Bryant's place. BYU's best hope for scoring from the bench probably lies on the shoulders of Corbin Kaufusi — or maybe Steven Beo, a prolific scorer in high school in Washington's Tri-Cities area.

With all the upsets Tuesday, the path got a bit easier for BYU, if it can get past an under-seeded UTA team that probably would have been a No. 4 of No. 5 seed if guard Jalen Jones hadn't suffered a season-ending hand injury in the conference tournament.

"He is a good player," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "His injury could be one of the reasons why they are not in the NCAA Tournament. They were the No. 1 seed going into that [Sun Belt] tournament and lost. And he is one of those guys that fits really well with their team. He scores 10 or 12 points a game, but defensively he is really solid. You can tell the experience he has, they really missed in that Texas State game."

As for BYU, the NIT represents a chance to get better and play in front of a home crowd — sparse as it may be due to the late-night start — one final time, maybe more. If they win, the Cougars will play either Houston or Akron. If Houston defeats Akron tonight at Texas Southern's arena (Houston's arena is being renovated), the red-clad Cougars will host a second-round game.

If Akron wins, it will travel to the BYU-UTA winner's arena.

The No. 1 seed in the bracket, California, was dumped by No. 8 seed Cal State Bakersfield, opening the way for BYU to host a third-round game if it can get past the first two.

Rose called this year's NIT bid an important one for a program that has started three sophomores and two freshmen for more than a month.

"As disappointed as we were in our performance last week, for this group, this might be the best NIT invitation that we have had, just because it is such a young group that is returning," Rose said. "We have had young groups in the NIT, a lot of them have been going on missions or whatever was going to happen. Last year we lost five of our top eight players off that team.

This group we anticipate that six of our top eight, maybe seven of our top eight, will be back next year.

That is a good [thing], and you look at the NCAA bracket this year, there are nine teams that I counted that were in the NIT last year with a young group, with four or more of their top eight returning. I think that is is really important for these guys to get back in the gym at this time of the year. It feels different. It is different. The weather is different. Everything is different. You are past your conference and your conference tournament. Now you need to be able to be focused and find a way to play some of your best basketball. Hopefully that is what this group experiences."

Rose said the "mood" of the team has gradually gotten better, and Eric Mika concurred.

"I think it is good," Mika said. "I think the last time we were in here we talked about managing our bodies and just staying healthy, our legs, especially. Playing this many games really adds up. So, I think we have done a good job the last little bit managing our bodies and getting not just our bodies, but our minds right, getting them to play the right way.

Yesterday we had a good practice and then today, in my opinion, and even better one. I think we are feeling good."

Mika said the team is looking at the NIT as a springboard into bigger and better things next year, when this group will have more experience and time spent playing together.

"Yeah, it is a big [opportunity]," Mika said. "That's the first thing coach said yesterday going into practice, was looking at how nine teams were in the NIT last year are in the NCAA this year. It is not a coincidence. Teams can really build off this experience moving forward into the next year, and I mean you go down the list of NIT teams that there are this year, and it is a loaded group. There are some really talented teams that could, if they have the right fortune, do a lot of good things in the NCAA Tournament. So we just gotta make sure that we have the right attitude and are lucky to be in the spot that we are in and build and improve and learn from it."




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