You don't need 20-20 vision to clearly see that this team passes eye test. They're an offensive juggernaut in scoring and efficiency. They have legit stars; Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth were named to the all-West Coast Conference, all-WCC Tournament and United States Basketball Writers Association all-District VIII teams. Plus, they've got a household name. This isn't North Florida, everybody knows about BYU.
Unfortunately for the Cougars the eye test isn't the measuring stick.
RPI and strength of schedule numbers are far more important than the eye test, and that's where things start to blur for BYU.
The image above shows this year's BYU team compared with the Cougars' two at-large berths since joining the West Coast Conference. Some metrics favor this year's team over the previous, some don't. The 2012 team was sent to the First Four — and advanced with a record setting comeback against Iona — last year's squad bowed out to Oregon in the round of 64. Comparing this year's with those two shows a team right in the middle. And that's how ESPN's Joe Lunardi sees it, as his bracketology has the Cougars with a 12 seed in Dayton.
What this team has that those teams didn't is a win over Gonzaga in Spokane. That's a win that only one team in the nation can match: Duke, by virtue of winning at Virginia. And that's just a win, a great win, but not a holy cow upset win.
BYU is not in a vacuum though. Just because this year's team is roughly comparable to previous BYU squads isn't enough. Other teams are fighting for that very same spot in the bracket. So what about those teams?
There's been no bid thievery in the conference tournaments to this points — sorry, Murray State. The Missouri Valley came close but ultimately Northern Iowa handled business and wrapped up the auto-bid. That locked down the MVC as a two-bid league, which is what it was supposed to be all season long.
The biggest threat in this department comes from their former home, the Mountain West. San Diego State — which needed two overtimes to defeat BYU in the Maui Invitational — is quite possibly the only team worthy of an at-large berth from that conference (in my opinion the MWC is a one-bid league but my opinion means absolutely nothing... please, keep reading anyway), and the likely tournament favorite. But, the Aztecs run into UNLV in their first game of the conference tournament (today at 6 p.m. Pacific). That tournament, as BYU fans know, is held at the Thomas & Mack Center — UNLV's home court.
If the Rebels run past the Aztecs that will blow the MWC tournament wide open. A Boise State tournament championship might not be true bid thievery since the Broncos are the only other tournament-quality team in the league, but any other team winning the auto-bid absolutely would be.
Then there is the case of the Cardinal. Until upsetting Gonzaga the Cougars' best win came against Stanford. The Cardinal narrowly escaped Washington in their Pac-12 tournament opener Wednesday night. A loss there would have completely closed the door on Stanford. Instead, that door remains cracked ever so slightly. The Cardinal next face a reeling Utah team (losers of three of their last five). Still, the Utes are 17th in the RPI and naturally, since everything is more complicated on the bubble, one of the teams BYU has lost to this season.
If things in the other conferences don't go bananas BYU hasn't got much to worry about.
But there is one more thing in play here, and it has as much to do with BYU as it does other teams around the nation. The selection committee strongly favors teams with tough non-conference schedules, as SMU learned last season when their bottom-100 non-conference schedule strength relegated them to the NIT.
BYU played three probable (at worst) NCAA tournament teams during the non-conference: San Diego State, Purdue and Utah. The Cougars lost all three, though the San Diego State and Purdue games both needed overtime to be decided. They didn't win those games but they showed the willingness, which the committee loves to see, to go out and play tournament-caliber teams.
So why is BYU on the bubble?
Because they came up short in the non-conference, though they did try. They pass the eye test, though their aesthetically pleasing style of play hasn't been enough for a win on nine occasions this season. They're not a lock but they're not out of consideration. That's being on the bubble.
These next few days won't be comfortable for fans of the Cougars, but that's a good thing. BYU has what it takes to win games in the NCAA tournament. If they do, after all this... there will be madness.