PROVO — After a brutal non-conference schedule, BYU will open West Coast Conference play on the road on Saturday. While some may believe that the Cougars can take a bit of a breather after facing four ranked teams, they would be mistaken.
While the Cougars won't get as much national attention as they could have if they'd beaten Iowa State, Wichita State, UMass or Oregon, these next few games will have a huge impact on whether BYU will be invited back to the NCAA tournament this year.
BYU has a small margin for error in conference play. While the Cougars did pick up solid victories against Stanford, Texas and Utah State, they just weren't able to claim a real signature win over teams like Iowa State, Wichita State or Oregon. Losing to Utah doesn't help matters, even though this game was on the road against a one-loss team.
In short, BYU is on the bubble to start conference play.
The Cougars don't start to play WCC powerhouses Gonzaga and Saint Mary's until Jan. 25, and BYU will need to perform well against those teams. However, it's critical that the Cougars don't put themselves behind the eight ball by losing these earlier conference games.
BYU starts conference play on the road at Loyola Marymount and at Pepperdine. LMU is No. 183 in RPI and Pepperdine is No. 192, according to ESPN. A loss against either team would wreak havoc with BYU's No. 17 RPI.
Last season, the Cougars lost at San Diego and at home vs. San Francisco. Those two losses, plus BYU's inability to beat either Saint Mary's or Gonzaga, ultimately prevented it from receiving an invitation to the NCAA tournament. Interestingly, San Diego is BYU's third conference game this year, and the Toreros took SDSU to the wire before falling 65-64.
BYU fans do not want to experience deja vu this year.
The one thing that BYU must improve, and quickly, is its performance from the charity stripe. The Cougars are making just 67.3 percent of their free throws. That's good enough to be No. 234 in Division I.
Not only is that embarrassing, free-throw trouble cost BYU at least two big games. The Cougars missed more free throws against both Iowa State and Oregon than the margin of victory. Poor free-throw shooting also contributed to BYU's other losses this season.
Now, everything isn't doom and gloom for the Cougars. They should be the favorite in every game leading up to their trip to No. 24 Gonzaga on Jan. 25. However, BYU can't afford to coast during these games. An invitation to the NCAA tournament is well within BYU's grasp, but it can slip away if the Cougars don't take care of business.
Lafe Peavler is a sportswriter intern at the Deseret News.