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BYU Created Memorable Season Despite Early Exit In NCAA Tournament

BYU Basketball was upset by UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 20th, 2021. (BYU Photo/Nate Edwards)

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Moments after the final horn sounded for BYU basketball in their NCAA Tournament loss to UCLA, across town at Lucas Oil Stadium, No. 14 seed Abilene Christian was about to pull off an upset of No. 3 Texas.

Bracket broke for BYU in NCAA Tournament

The bracket broke in BYU’s favor, but the Cougars couldn’t capitalize. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for the Cougars and will rank right up there with the 2011 season when 8-seed Butler was waiting in the Elite Eight, and 11-seed VCU was in the Final Four. Dave Rose said he once thought about those “What If’s” once but couldn’t do it again.

BYU in 2020-21 will now be left with those what if’s while UCLA gears up for a Round of 32 meeting with an ACU team that didn’t make a field goal in the final 3:30 of game action and still pulled off the massive upset.

Mark Pope: “These guys accomplished extraordinary things.”

The missed opportunity will sting for a BYU team that produced many memorable moments in the second year of the Mark Pope era. A year that was played amidst a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic that saw players testing three times per week to be able to play at all this season.

“These guys accomplished extraordinary things,” said BYU coach Mark Pope after the loss to UCLA. “They’re a Top 25 team. They’re metrically astounding, probably made the biggest jump in their ranking in the preseason to the end of the season as any team in the country. And they won huge game after huge gave after huge game.”

Coming into the year, the national narrative around BYU was, they lost a lot of talent from last year’s squad, they likely take a step back in Pope’s second year. With grad transfer additions of Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette, BYU was built to keep the success rolling.

The Cougars entered the NCAA Tournament ranked in the AP Top 25, marking back-to-back seasons in the rankings. It’s the first time that’s happened at BYU in a decade.

Alex Barcello led BYU basketball

Alex Barcello, an AP Honorable Mention All-American, rose to be BYU’s unofficial captain and leader of the team with his experience from last year’s squad. He was a tone-setter for all of the new faces to help show them the “Best Locker Room in America” mantra BYU has created.

That mantra was on display as early-season starters Kolby Lee and Connor Harding took on less visible roles off the bench later in the season, yet still stay committed to Pope and his program.

Wins over NCAA Tournament squads San Diego State and Utah State were highlights during BYU’s non-conference schedule. A second-place finish to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference gave BYU the resume necessary to receive a single-digit seed in the Big Dance.

The Cougars didn’t have the breakthrough win against Gonzaga as they did last year. Gonzaga, to their credit, is far better this year than last year’s squad and could be a generational team if they conclude their NCAA Tournament run with the first undefeated season in college basketball since 1976.

Not quite the offensive juggernaut as last season

Last year’s BYU team was an offensive juggernaut becoming the No. 1 team in the land shooing threes. This season, BYU was good again, but they had their fair share of games where they struggled from the outside, including in Saturday’s loss to UCLA.

BYU entered the NCAA Tournament at No. 25 in three-point field goal percentage, but after an 18-percent night in the upset loss to the Bruins, the streaky Cougars dropped to 36th. Finishing with a 37.3 percent clip from beyond the arc.

One of the unique aspects of the 2020-21 BYU Basketball team was the roster’s make-up. Seniors Averette, Barcello, and Haarms never in their wildest dreams would have envisioned their careers being played at BYU. Without them, BYU doesn’t win 20 ball games this year.

BYU formed relationships that last a lifetime after NCAA Tournament

The missed opportunity in the NCAA Tournament left BYU with high emotions after falling to UCLA. According to Pope, it won’t take away from the memories they forged together as a team.

“They came every single night and every single day in practice ready to go,” said Pope on the 2020-21 team. “They took an eclectic collection of guys from all over, with all different backgrounds, they came together and forged a special team. So, so many accomplishments. … What these guys did that is so spectacular nobody is going to understand — I’ll keep saying it, but nobody is going to understand — is these guys formed a relationship, the likes of which you rarely have in your life. And with each other.

Pope continued, “And that, like I said, I say it over and over, that just doesn’t happen. These guys work at it and sacrifice towards it. I care about wins and losses. I care about numbers, and I care about all those things, and all those things are super important. And this team accomplished incredible things. They’re walking out of this season with a pocketful of records and incredible accomplishments and huge contributions to BYU basketball, to the history BYU basketball, some great things.

“But at the end of the day, all that stuff is fine, but they got something that’s way deeper and way more important than any of those things. They’ve got each other. And if you don’t understand what I mean, I get it.”

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m., KSL Newsradio). Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper and the KSL Sports app.

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