"This is what makes it fun," said Jackson Emery. "It's one and done if you don't win, so it's gonna be fun. You gotta enjoy the time, but at the same time we gotta realize we're playing basketball still."
"We're really excited," said Charles Abouo. "It's what we've played for all year."
While some teams will be playing for their lives and their postseason dreams – as Jimmer Fredette put it – the Cougars are aiming to play as relaxed as they can.
"Coach was telling us [Monday] that all the pressure is on the other teams right now," said Fredette. "We know that we're gonna get an NCAA Tournament bid at this point, so we don't need to do much in the conference tournament – although we want to."
None of the current Cougars have won the MWC Tournament, something they are aware of, so while they need not worry about relying on an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, they are indeed focused on winning. Abouo said winning the conference tournament was a "huge goal" of theirs, and Coach Rose noted the competitiveness of his team.
Though the Cougars have earned the coveted top seed in the conference tournament, they face the unique challenge of not knowing who they will face in the first round on Thursday until the play-in game on Wednesday is over.
"It's, I think, a little unsettling to some of the guys not knowing who they're playing – which team they're playing," said Coach Rose. "But we've been through this before as a number one seed, and once that game on Wednesday's completed, we can really dial in on our opponent."
In the meantime, the team has been focusing on themselves and getting better. The good news is that after dealing with various injury issues, the team is said to be healthy.
But, the biggest lost the Cougars have faced personnel-wise has nothing to do with health.
Making do without Davies
Center Brandon Davies' suspension for the rest of the season has forced the Cougars to adjust right as the postseason is about to get underway.
"Everyone's just gotta elevate their game," Emery said about compensating for the loss of Davies. "People say James [Anderson] has gotta do this or our bigs gotta do this, but really it's a team effort."
Despite the events of the past few weeks, with all the dramatic highs and lows, Emery said he doesn't think the team is on an emotional roller coaster. In fact, on Monday he said the team's first postseason practice went very well.
"It was our regular selves, I felt like. I felt like there wasn't pressure, guys weren't getting after each other. We were just playing, we were having fun and we were just trying to get better, and I think that win versus Wyoming really helped us, as [did] our play in that second half."
That second half against Wyoming saw the Cougars score 64 points and shoot 67.7 percent from the field. It was a sign that the Cougars can still be explosive even without Davies, although they will be facing tougher competition in the near future.
The team will generally feature smaller lineups now. Expect less posting up down low but more players penetrating to the basket, Fredette said.
Rose added that their transition game will be important, and they will spread the floor and attack depending on how their opponents defend Fredette. That's what they've done all year, but Rose said there will be more space on the floor now when they have one fewer post player in the game.
"Offensively, that's something that I think these guys will adjust to. We've got really good offensive players."
Certainly, there are none better than Fredette, who said that while playing more games in the conference tournament will help the team, it isn't necessary in order for them to learn how to play without Davies.
"We know how we can play; we've played all season together, so it doesn't really need to change all that much. We just need to go out there and play the best that we can, and just focus on working hard, and we'll be alright."
The Cougars certainly aren't as strong without Davies, their third leading scorer and leading rebounder. But, he often played limited minutes because of foul trouble, and the Cougars were able to beat some quality opponents in games where he wasn't a major factor or spent a good amount of time on the bench.
"We know that we're a good team still," said Fredette, "and we're focused on getting better every single day and going out there and practicing hard and getting a good game plan ready and going down there [in Las Vegas] and executing it. So, we think that we're still a very good team and could make a good run."