Cougars face rematch against Baylor

While BYU missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006 was a big disappointment for fans, the Cougars have nevertheless embraced the challenge of playing in the NIT with heart and pride. Now they have advanced to the NIT Final Four in Madison Square Garden, and will face a Baylor team on Tuesday that beat them 79-64 back on December 21.

When the Cougars flamed out in the WCC Tournament and lost to San Diego, thus ending any hope they had of earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the team was naturally down.

So, when they got back to Provo and still had to practice for a week before learning what their fate was, they had to quickly get over their disappointment.

"I think our coaches tried to run [the disappointment] out of us pretty quick," said Nate Austin. "The first few practices and workouts were pretty tough. But I think guys were pretty disappointed basically all week until on Sunday [March 17] when we found out we were gonna play Washington. And then once we found that out we were past the San Diego game and we were onto the next one. But I think that week was tough for everyone just ‘cause we weren't sure if we were gonna play again."

Rose gave a lot of credit to the senior leadership on the team provided by Brandon Davies, Brock Zylstra and Craig Cusick. He noted how they have all overcome personal trials throughout their college careers and how that has played a role in their resiliency this postseason.

Still, Rose had to do his part as well.

"Well I believe the most important thing when we came home [from the WCC Tournament] was to make sure that these guys still had a real strong belief that their coaches thought that this was a good team," Rose said, "and I think we were real positive with the guys. We addressed some real issues and the guys responded to that, but this is a real reflection of the character of these guys."

Some teams don't put forth much effort in the NIT, but that hasn't been the case for BYU.

"We're playing our best basketball right now," said Tyler Haws, who noted that the team is playing free and has nothing to lose. "Everyone's sharing the ball, we're playing fast, and so we've hit our peak at a good time."

When asked why he has been able to play much more consistently in the NIT, Matt Carlino said it was because he's "just playing free – just having fun out there and trying to win."

The Cougars are happy that their season did not end with the disappointing loss to San Diego.

"I'm glad we got the chance to play in the NIT," said Austin. "I think if our season had ended, most people would say it was kind of a disappointment almost. But I think since our team came together, we stayed tight knit and [have been] playing for each other, the season's kind of been turned around a little bit, and I think it's more of a success than it was for sure."

Now the Cougars will take on a Baylor team that they've lost to in each of the past two regular seasons.

"It's kind of weird ‘cause we're gonna play a team three times that's not in our conference," said Carlino.

After BYU got out to a hot start earlier this season at Baylor and jumped out to a 15-6 lead, Baylor regrouped and took a 40-31 lead into halftime thanks in large part to a 21-2 run.

"We got off to a really good start against this team," said Haws. "We know we can play with them, and so hopefully we can do that again and put together a full 40 minutes against them."

Rose said they have made some changes in the game plan from the last time they faced Baylor. As for what his team needs to do better this time around, he said rebounding will be a real big issue and that their transition defense needs to be a lot better.

Nevertheless, the Cougars are confident. Austin noted how the team is playing better both offensively and defensively, and believes the Cougars may be hungrier than the Bears. His teammates are also expecting a different game this time around.

"I feel like last time we played them we were a totally different team [from] this time we play them," said Carlino.

Not having to play the Bears in their home arena is also a nice change this time around.

"I believe it will be a much different game playing them on a neutral court than in Waco," said Rose.

Nevertheless, despite how well the Cougars are playing now and how improved they may be from last December, Baylor has also been playing very well in the NIT and scoring even more points (93.3 points per game in their first three games, compared to BYU's 86.3 points per game). Rose said the Bears' numbers in the NIT are just staggering.

The Cougars are excited for the opportunity. While Rose acknowledged that the program's goal is to reach the NCAA tournament each year and that some people might be discounting what the team has achieved because it has been happening in the NIT, he is excited with how his team has responded to adversity.

"We went to six straight NCAA tournaments before this year, and I don't remember being any more excited than we are right now," said Rose.

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