COMMENTARY – BYU basketball has been a whirlwind since last season. So much so, it’s been hard to wrap my mind around it.
At the end of the season last year (when BYU was knocked out of the NIT by UT-Arlington), the future looked incredibly bright for the Cougars. With no seniors on the active roster (Kyle Davis and LJ Rose were injured), BYU looked like it would be one of the favorites to win the West Coast Conference and return to the NCAA Tournament.
But not long after the season ended, rumors began to circulate that athletic center Eric Mika, who averaged 20 points and nine rebounds a game, was thinking about going pro. Fans wondered what he was thinking. He was college good, no doubt, but he needed more experience, more seasoning, before he would be ready for the NBA.
But for whatever reason, Mika decided to take the money and run … to Italy. Turns out the fans were right. Mika wasn’t ready for the NBA.
So Dave Rose, BYU’s consistently topnotch head coach, had to do some recalibrating for the new season. The good news: He had scorer Nick Emery returning, a deadly shooter who could break down the defenses.
Emery, who went through a divorce, then had rumors circulate that he had been taking improper benefits from a BYU booster, a blatant NCAA violation, withdrew from school and the team.
The divorce is real, and certainly a tough thing for any of us to go through. But the gossip spread like wildfire about why he got divorced. Personally, I don’t really care why. I just know that Emery’s personal life was in tatters, and the as yet unsubstantiated NCAA violation rumors were more straw on the poor camel’s back.
And just like that, Rose had to try and piece together a team that lost two big men (Mika and Davis), plus its top outside threat (Emery) and a bulk of any experience it had.
Fast forward to today. The Cougars prepare to meet Utah this Saturday with an 8-2 record, a new philosophy and a couple of new stars.
Any question that Dave Rose is not an amazing coach should be put to rest once and for all.
For many years, Rose has had success playing a free-wheeling type of outscore-them-at-all-costs style of play. Last year, BYU was among the leaders in the nation in scoring and typically had games in which it would score 100 points or more. The Cougars scored 81 points a game, but also gave up 75 a contest.
In other words, their offense was great and their defense was lousy.
So, with a lot of new faces and the need for a step up from past disappointments, Rose re-configured his focus. Gone is the emphasis on run-and-gun, with defense and rebounding becoming top priorities. The Cougars can still score (averaging 76.7 points a game), but now they get stops as well (surrendering 69.1 per contest).
Embracing their roles as leaders now, Elijah Bryant, TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs have stepped up to the plate. Losing Mika, Davis and Emery, BYU surrendered 42 points, 16 rebounds and five assists per game. But the trio of Childs, Bryant and Haws is combining for 45 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists per game.
Childs and Bryant have been the model of consistency, while Haws has started to come on especially recently. Last week, the son of Marty Haws and younger brother of Tyler Haws (two of BYU’s all-time leading scorers) averaged 22 points, 2.5 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals, all while shooting 54 percent from the floor and making eight 3-pointers in 15 attempts.
BYU has stirring close wins over UMass and Princeton, plus a sweet revenge game over Utah Valley on their own floor (after giving up 114 to the Wolverines in last year’s 13-point loss, BYU allowed UVU just 58 points in a 27-point win).
So, much has changed from last season: New players, new philosophy, even new assistant coach (ultra-experienced Heath Schroyer is a big reason the defense is so much better).
But there’s plenty of unfinished business. BYU has lost three in a row to the Runnin’ Utes. That’s unacceptable. BYU still can’t quite get past the Big Two of the WCC (Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s). And BYU still gets beat up physically by some teams (think Alabama and UT-Arlington).
But the recipe is in place, and a win against Utah Saturday (9 p.m. in the Marriott Center on ESPN2) would be a huge step in the right direction.
After the fiasco that was the football season, BYU fans need need something to grasp hold of. Hopefully hoops is it.
Blue Blood is a sports column written by Andy Griffin. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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