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Provo • Having lost three games to teams with RPIs above 200 and lacking anything better than a win over a Saint Mary's team with an RPI of 57, the BYU Cougars have known for a while now that they will have to win March's West Coast Conference tournament to get into the Big Dance later that month.
Amazingly, though, the Cougars still have a shot to claim the No. 1 seed for the WCC tournament as the regular season enters its final week. BYU, 21-8 overall and 12-4 in the WCC, plays host to Portland on Thursday and Gonzaga on Saturday at the Marriott Center, where it rolled past San Diego 91-33 last week to remain in third place in the league standings.
"Well, I think that might be as good as we've ever played with this group," coach Dave Rose said after the complete domination of the Toreros.
Saint Mary's and Gonzaga are both 13-3 in league play after the Gaels knocked off the Zags 63-58 in Spokane on Saturday night. If BYU wins both its games this week and Saint Mary's loses to either Santa Clara on Thursday in Moraga or at San Francisco on Saturday, the Cougars will get the top seed for the tournament in Las Vegas March 3-9.
If that scenario unfolds and the Gaels, Zags and Cougars are tied atop the WCC standings with 14-4 records, BYU would get the No. 1 seed because it would have a better record against the other top teams. Of course, the inconsistent Cougars have to win out.
"[Winning] is the only thing [that matters]," said freshman guard Nick Emery after he scored a game-high 17 points Saturday. "To continue to progress as a team, and learn from our mistakes, and continue forward, that is the ultimate goal. All these guys are dedicated. Me personally, I know I am dedicated. I know Zac [Seljaas] is dedicated. We want to make the tourney, and it is going to be hard, but I believe we can do it."
First, the Cougars have to be able to handle Portland (12-17, 6-10), something they weren't able to do on Jan. 16 at Chiles Center, when the Pilots hit 10 3-pointers and won 84-81. Portland rolled Pacific 80-67 on Saturday and lost just 74-72 to Saint Mary's on Thursday.
Emery said the Cougars are playing their best basketball of the season now, but that's what the Cougars were saying before they lost 77-72 at home to Pacific on Feb. 6.
"I think we have made a lot of improvement and we are going to continue to improve and get better each and every day," Emery said.
Clearly, having a healthy Seljaas will help. The freshman said his bruised right shoulder "feels 100 percent right now" after he scored 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting, his first double-digit scoring performance in a month.
"It was good to see Zac back after that shoulder has been hurting him for a couple weeks," Rose said. "He looked a lot better in practice yesterday, and tonight looked like he was back to his old self. So hopefully that's a sign of good things to come. It was a good game tonight. We look forward to another big weekend."
Looking at the big picture, Rose said that all things considered, the Cougars could be in worse shape than still being alive for a piece of the WCC regular-season title with two games left to play in the regular season.
"Well, I think you want to really challenge your guys, and they were really challenged this week. And they responded in a great way. We won a game on Thursday where we were never comfortable the whole game," he said. "Our guys were on edge the whole night [Thursday], because San Diego had us on our heels. We responded in the second half, got the lead, and then we were able to hang on. And then the other three games that we played, the San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Diego game [Saturday], we got big leads. I know how these guys can really play when they are relaxed and comfortable. But usually in [February] you can't relax, and you are not comfortable, so it was good to see our guys when they really got challenged respond with a win."
Portland at BYU
P Thursday, 9 p.m.
TV • ESPNU