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At 9-2 and back on the bubble, BYU’s brilliant schedule deserves praise

It’s been a fun start to the year for Cougar fans.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Brigham Young
Elijah Bryant and BYU have impressed this season.
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone in the college basketball world should look to Provo, Utah for inspiration.

It was a rough offseason for Dave Rose’s BYU Cougars. Eric Mika declared for the draft, Nick Emery withdrew from school and the Cougars were picked to finish a distant third in the WCC.

But now, after a 77-65 win over arch-rival Utah on Saturday, there’s not much to complain about. With a 9-2 record BYU is off to it’s best start since joining the West Coast Conference in 2011. The Cougars have played their way onto the bubble, so after consecutive trips to the NIT, BYU could well be heading back to the Big Dance.

That said, by the metrics, the Cougars’ non-conference schedule doesn’t really impress. It’s simply average, coming in at No. 138 in KenPom.

But forget the numbers for a minute. The Cougars put together a schedule, and have performed against it, in a way that both the selection committee and college basketball fans alike can respect. Let’s break this thing down because I believe every team in America should schedule like the Cougars.

Diversity in competition

Cougar fans want to see their team win and win big every time they step on the court. BYU’s schedule gives them plenty of opportunities for that. Home games against Mississippi Valley State and Niagara resulted in high-scoring victories. An upcoming game against Idaho State should go that way as well.

But the Cougars also let talented teams come into the Marriott Center, like UT Arlington, which upset BYU back on Nov. 18. Considering how good the Mavericks are, and that they knocked BYU out of the NIT in that very building back in March, it wasn’t much of an upset.

They’ve also lost to Alabama this season on a neutral court in New York. Since the Cougars do not play on Sunday they are forced out of most Thanksgiving tournaments, but they still do well to schedule good teams and programs on neutral courts.

True road games

It’s been well documented that the selection committee likes to see teams go on the road and play people. Just ask WCC foe Saint Mary’s, which rarely leaves Moraga and often misses the NCAA Tournament. Or ask Gonzaga, which built it’s program by playing anybody, anywhere, anytime and hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament since 1998.

The Cougars’ non-conference schedule features three true road games. Not a huge number, sure, but just as good as anybody else. No team currently ranked in the AP Top-25 will play more than three true road non-conference games this season. Most won’t even play that many. Only Villanova, Miami, Notre Dame, Tennessee, and Baylor can match BYU’s number.

Unfortunately for the Cougars’ tournament hopes, none of their true road games have come against quality opponents. But that shouldn’t matter to the casual fan.

Preservation of rivalries

If the Cougars didn’t want to play at Utah Valley or Utah State, they wouldn’t. BYU isn’t your typical mid-major. The Cougars have a brand and a big, imposing arena but they’re not giving up on Beehive State basketball, and it’s a gift to us all.

There are six Division I basketball programs in the state of Utah and the Cougars play all but one of them this season: Southern Utah didn’t schedule a single in-state rival this year, but gets Weber State twice in Big Sky play. BYU went 4-0 in those games and are de facto state champs.

Just preserving the super-heated BYU vs. Utah rivalry deserves praise. A couple years ago Larry Krystkowiak got too big for his britches (moving to a power conference can do that to you) and called the rivalry off because of safety concerns. Blame it on Nick Emery throwing a punch if you want, but also know that Dave Rose’s 8-4 record against Utah probably didn’t sit too well in Salt Lake.

But it’s not just that game against Utah. Every one of these games runs deeper than your typical in-state rivalry.

BYU guard McKay Cannon spent his first two seasons at Weber State. Utah Valley’s head coach, Mark Pope, is a former BYU assistant. He’s coaching Jake Toolson, who spent two years at BYU and is the nephew of Cougar great Danny Ainge.

These teams trade players and split families. Oh yeah and you can’t forget about the church in this deeply religious state. BYU is a private university owned by the LDS Church, while the other five D1 programs come from public colleges.

Put it all together and you’ve got a near perfect schedule. Perform well against that schedule and there’s no reason the Cougars won’t be back in the Big Dance very soon.