LAS VEGAS – Brigham Young’s 2017-18 basketball season took its first nosedive months before the Cougars reconvened in Provo, Utah, for preseason workouts.
Productive big man Eric Mika made the decision to forgo his final two years of eligibility and instead take his chances in the NBA Draft.
His 6-foot-10 presence was instantly gone from the Cougars’ frontcourt. It was just the first piece of puzzling news BYU fans would receive before the season began in earnest.
Midway through November, when excitement at the Marriott Center was finally starting to mount again, fate dealt the Cougars another disheartening blow. Nick Emery, a standout junior guard who was expected to be the centerpiece of the Cougars’ backcourt, withdrew from the program amid claims he’d received improper benefits from a school booster.
BYU’s season continued to tailspin – losses to UTA and a who’s who of West Coast Conference minnows dismissed any chances of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament – and the Cougars traveled to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament with mounds of pressure and marginal room for error.
“Well, we knew that we put ourselves in a situation where the only really direct route to the NCAA Tournament was win all three of those,” BYU coach Dave Rose said, “so we’re going to go home a little disappointed.”
A 74-54 Gonzaga-administered smackdown in the conference championship game probably gave relief to every “bubble” team in America – now the sixth-ranked Zags won’t steal one of those precious at-large bids – but it also wiped out the Cougars’ dreams of qualifying for the Big Dance and likely punched a return ticket to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT).
BYU leaves Vegas with a record of 24-9. Pretty dang good, just not good enough.
“Well, as far as the NCAA Tournament is concerned,” Rose said, “I think you have enough people that are assigned to try to figure out who those 68 teams are, but I’ll just tell you about our team.”
For one, “this team is full of character, full of heart,” the BYU coach said.
And despite some pretty adverse situations.
“We’ve had some personnel issues over the last couple of years that have surprised us a little bit,” Rose said.
That included the two major departures that cost the Cougars some 33 points per game, 12-plus rebounds and surely a game or two in the win column. Mica was a 20 point-per-game scorer who pulled down 9.2 rebounds last year and Emery scored better than 13 per game in 2016-17.
“It’s been through quite a season,” Rose said. “… We played most of the season with eight scholarship players. These guys kept fighting and believing in themselves and believing in each other. It’s hard to win one game, let alone 24 games in a season. I’ll go to battle with these guys any day.”
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