How sweet it is

The stage is bigger. The stakes are higher. BYU is in a situation it hasn't been in for 30 years: playing in the Sweet 16. However, playing Florida in the tournament isn't new, as this game is a rematch of the classic first-round double overtime showdown last year. But whereas Florida returns all five starters, the Cougars are a different team from last year.

If anyone questions how big of a deal it was for this Cougar squad to reach the Sweet 16, they need simply go back and watch the closing minutes of the game against Gonzaga. Players were clearly jubilant, and even the normally reserved Charles Abouo was hyperactively bouncing around and playfully smacking teammates and even Coach Rose.

"We've been on an emotional high," said Noah Hartsock, "and I think we've come down from that and realize that we have a good chance now to do something special for our conference and for the team."

Jimmer Fredette said that they realize this isn't just another game, "but once you get out onto the floor, you don't realize all that hype. You realize that you're playing basketball."

And when the Cougars do play basketball on Thursday in New Orleans, they will be playing a familiar foe. Last year the No. 7 seed Cougars beat the No. 10 seed Florida Gators to get their first tournament win in 17 years. This year, Florida is a 2 seed, while BYU is a 3 seed.

The Gators are largely the same team, as they return every starter from last season: center Vernon Macklin, forwards Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus, and guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker.

"You're basically looking at the same team one year older, one year more experienced, [and with] a lot more wins," said Coach Rose, adding that they are better in close games this season.

"They're just better because they're more experienced," said Fredette. "They've played together now for two years, they've won two games in the NCAA Tournament now together as a team, and they're used to winning."

The Cougars, meanwhile, aren't as similar to last year's team as the Gators are to theirs. Starters Tyler Haws and Chris Miles are gone, as is sixth man Jonathan Tavernari. Meanwhile, Brandon Davies will obviously not play this time around because of his suspension.

And then there's Michael Loyd, one of the heroes of last year's game. He scored 26 points, including every BYU point in the first overtime, but would end up unceremoniously leaving BYU about a month later.

Cougar Offensive outlook

But even if they did have to worry about any heroics from Loyd this year, would there still be any doubt about who the Gators would be most concerned about stopping?

"I think they're going to be really focused on Jimmer," said Hartsock. "He lit them up for 37 last year, and I think they'll be focused on stopping that and try to limit what he can do."

That's hardly anything new, as team after team after team goes out with the intent of stopping – or at least slowing – Fredette.

"I think that they're just gonna be really tenacious," Fredette said about what he anticipates from them defensively.

Fredette said he thinks they will probably try and double him, defend ball screens hard, and get the ball out of his hands. They are more aware of him now than they were last year, but he nevertheless doesn't expect anything too drastic from them.

Coach Rose said the Gators can pose problems defensively because they are versatile, and probably have three or four players that can guard Fredette. They have good size, but also have quickness with Boynton and Walker. Boynton sprained his ankle in their last game against UCLA, but is expected to be ready to play on Thursday.

"For Jimmer, it's just a matter of trying to get a feel for how they're gonna attack him, what they're gonna do," said Rose, "and then the rest of our players have got to be able to read and react to that and get into spots where Jimmer can find them [and they can] get space and make shots."

"It's gonna take a whole team effort, especially this late in the year," said Hartsock.

"If we can have everyone step up and play big, that's real vital for us."

Despite the aforementioned losses from last year's BYU squad, there are some new faces this time around that could have a big impact. Charles Abouo did play in last year's tournament, but of all the Cougars that saw time against Florida, he played the fewest minutes (10). He will no doubt play a bigger role this time around. Hartsock too could play a bigger role, as the Gators must respect his outside shooting, unlike last year.

Meanwhile, Logan Magnusson and James Anderson didn't get off the bench in last year's contest, but have contributed this tournament along with newcomers Kyle Collinsworth and Stephen Rogers. Some of their contributions have been in defense and rebounding, but against Gonzaga, it was the whole team's shooting in particular that sparked the Cougars to victory. Against the Zags, the Cougars resembled the BYU team that went into San Diego and handled the Aztecs.

"We have a lot of really good players on this team that can make shots, make big plays for us, play great defense, and they've been huge in this NCAA Tournament as well," said Fredette. "They've played really well. Our bench has been great and everybody's been stepping up all year, so it's a great team that we have here and that's why we've been successful."

Cougar Offensive outlook

"I think Florida's gonna just play on attack and be really aggressive, and we're preparing for that and just getting our minds set and our game ready," said Hartsock.

"I think [Coach Donovan's] team is a real up-tempo team," said Rose. "They space the floor really well. They have great individual players that are really hard to guard individually; you have to give help. And when you give help, it's a very unselfish team that passes the ball, makes extra passes. It's a very well coached team that has a great frontline and very good guards."

Rose noted that Gonzaga had a terrific frontline that gave his team issues throughout their game, but added that his players got better at defending them as the game wore on.

A lot of that has to do with BYU's zone defense, something that Hartsock said has improved a lot since last year.

"I think with the absence of Brandon, we had to move a little bit to zone just so we could play bigger teams, and Coach has done a great job of making sure we get out and rotate properly."

In addition to watching film of the Gators from this season, the Cougars watched some film of their game against them last year to see what gave them issues.

"We had a very difficult time late in the game trying to get stops," said Rose, "and that will be a real focus of ours is defensively trying to figure out a way to handle all that talent, all that size, and then to handle the way they share the ball and play with each other."

Though the Cougars did have issues getting stops late against Florida, they got them when the mattered most. With the score tied both at the end of regulation and the end of the first overtime, Florida had the ball and the opportunity to play for the last shot. They couldn't score either time.

Combine that with all the big shots and other big plays the Cougars made – whether it was Jackson Emery's crucial three-pointer after Florida went up by four points late in regulation, or Fredette's game-tying bucket with 26 seconds left in regulation – and it was a gutty effort under extremely nerve-wracking circumstances.

Cougar fans can only hope that the team has some more of that magic in itself.

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