The history of BYU in the NCAA Tournament

March Madness is almost upon us. What can we learn from BYU's tournament history?

Jimmer Fredette exits the tunnel following a tournament win against Gonzaga
Jimmer Fredette exits the tunnel following a tournament win against Gonzaga / Doug Pensinger/GettyImages

Here comes the big one; we have finally entered the month of March, which is best known for being the month of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. As a BYU fan, I have come to expect disappointment when this season comes around. I wasn't alive to see Danny Ainge go coast-to-coast against Notre Dame to take BYU to the Elite Eight, and the last time BYU reached the second round of the tournament was over a decade ago, meaning my memories of postseason success are almost exclusive to YouTube highlights.

During a time where the country is buzzing with the anticipation of basketball nirvana, BYU fans often feel cautious and not inclined to get their hopes up for the chance of a deep tournament run, but this year feels different somehow. In the Cougars' first season as a member of the Big 12, Mark Pope's squad has made a big splash in the toughest basketball conference in college hoops.

By all means, get excited for this year's postseason. BYU finally has a team that is capable of beating the nation's best, and as a fan, I'm optimistic about the outlook of the team. I have two BYU fans in my heart, however. The first one is the optimist who truly believes that every game will be won by BYU, no matter how unlikely it may seem to others. The other fan inside me is pessimistic, unenthused, and anxious at the idea of being let down by a team that has let me down so many times before. The fan that overcomes is the fan I feed, and when it comes to do-or-die high profile matchups, the optimist inside me gets a bit malnourished.

Dallin Hall, Noah Waterman
BYU celebrates a win over the Kansas Jayhawks (2024) / Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

By looking back through BYU hoops history, I should be able to verify what feelings are realistic, and what feelings are overly positive or negative. No, I am not okay, but I am ready to be hurt again.

BYU Basketball March Madness History

Tournament Appearances: 29 (soon to be 30)
Elite Eight Appearances: 3
Sweet Sixteen Appearances: 7
Round of 32 Appearances: 9

Notable runs:

Two of BYU's three runs to the Elite Eight happened well before the modern tournament format of 64 teams existed. In fact, the tournament didn't even have 16 teams until the 1951 season, which was BYU's second appearance in the Elite Eight. In the 1981 season, however, most fans remember BYU's legendary run to the Elite Eight by a singular play by BYU's first-ever national player of the year, Danny Ainge. Ainge lifted the Cougars through the Sweet Sixteen with a coast-to-coast buzzer beater layup to beat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. That was BYU's most recent appearance in the Elite Eight, over 40 years ago.

BYU's most notable recent run in the tournament was in 2011, when a BYU team led by another Player of the Year, Jimmer Fredette, took the nation by strorm. With starting center, Brandon Davies, out of the lineup for honor code violations, BYU's potential was suddenly limited in postseason play, but the Cougar's tournament run drew the attention of the nation until it was unfortunately cut short in an overtime loss to 2-seed Florida. I still daydream about what could have been if Kyle Collinsworth had made both free throws at the end of regulation to get that win. BYU would have faced 8-seed Butler and would have had a chance to get to the Final Four where they would have faced 11-seed VCU. Truly a season where BYU could have made a run at the title if not for their Sweet Sixteen overtime defeat.

Jimmer's time as a Cougar didn't include much tournament success outside of that 2011 season, and a 2010 2OT victory over 10-seed Florida, but we'll never forget the mania that ensued every time he pulled up from "Jimmer range".

Truthfully, to expect a deep run from BYU doesn't make sense when you look at the grand scope of BYU's tournament appearances. They have lost far more games than they've won, and in recent years, first-round exits have been the norm.

I can't help but feel that this year's team is better than ever, though. Finally, BYU has a team that isn't reliant one one player's offensive output to carry the load. This team is also much more battle-tested than any other team in the school's history, now playing in the Big 12 Conference. But beyond only playing tough games, BYU wins tough games now. Kansas, Iowa State, and Baylor can certainly vouch for that.

I know what I said about how history can be an indication of what may happen in the future, and I know that BYU's tournament history is uninspiring, but I choose to feed the fan who believes that if the Cougars ever go all the way, this may be the year.

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