Curse of Digger Phelps

Everybody knows that the BYU basketball program has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1993, back when freshman Tyler Haws was teething. It may be a good omen that when the Cougars beat SMU in the first round in ’93, they were a No. 7 seed, just like they are this year.

It’s an interesting first-round matchup on Thursday — a team, BYU, which has lost eight straight NCAA Tournament games against a team, Florida, which has won 12 NCAA Tournament games in a row (stemming from back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007; the Gators did not go to the Big Dance in 2008 or 2009).

Hey, if nothing else, at least BYU isn’t playing Texas A&M for the third straight year.

Everybody knows that the Cougars own one of the most dubious records in college basketball: they have been to 24 NCAA Tournaments without a Final Four appearance. They are No. 1 in the nation in that category. In other words, no basketball program has done less with so many chances in the NCAA Tournament than BYU.

So what’s the cause of all the struggles — diagnosed by leading bracketologists as “one-and-done-itis” — in the tournament?

Well, I have a theory. A very plausible theory. I call it the Curse of Digger Phelps.

Before he became a college basketball analyst on ESPN, Phelps was the coach at Notre Dame in 1981 when BYU stunned the Fighting Irish on Danny Ainge’s famous coast-to-coast dash and layup over the outstretched fingertips of Orlando Woolridge in the game’s final seconds. Ainge’s basket — the biggest in school history — sent the Cougars to the Elite Eight for the first, and only, time in school history.

Phelps has never forgotten it, of course. I’m thinking he probably hired some mystical leprechaun in South Bend, or Dublin, to cast a hex on the BYU basketball program.

After the Cougars knocked off Notre Dame, they fell the following week to Ralph Sampson and Virginia. BYU thus missed out on the Final Four. That’s how close BYU came. But they haven’t come close since.
Since the Cougars’ memorable run to the Elite Eight in ’81 (that’s right, nearly 30 years ago), they have posted an abysmal 4-15 in the tournament with, as mentioned, eight consecutive first-round exits.

But I’m predicting BYU will end the streak, and the curse, Thursday in Oklahoma City. The Cougars are due in a big way. And I like their chances against No. 2 seed Kansas State in the second round. From there, BYU would return to Salt Lake City for the Regional semifinals at a place the Cougars are very familiar with — Energy Solutions Arena. If they get that far, anything could happen? Maybe a last-second coast-to-coast dash by Jimmer Fredette in the waning seconds against Syracuse?

A trip to the Sweet Sixteen would be a fitting run not only for BYU basketball and their fans, but also coach Dave Rose, who battled cancer last summer. Rose knows first-hand what it’s like to go deep into the tournament. He was part of the Houston Cougar team (also known as “Phi Slamma Jamma”) that advanced to the 1983 national championship game only to lose to North Carolina State on Lorenzo Charles’ basket off an airball by teammate Dereck Whittingburg as time expired. It would be a great story — Rose leading BYU to the Final Four …

But first things first. The Cougars need to win a first-round game. BYU can worry about halting its Final Four drought later. One win in the tournament would be a huge step forward for the program, no matter what happens after that.

It’s time for BYU to play past Thursday in the Big Dance. It’s time for the Curse of Digger Phelps, whatever you want to call it, to come to an end.

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