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BYU's frontcourt taking baby steps toward March

PROVO — They’ve stepped up.

Josh Sharp isn’t your picture-book power forward. Some are taller and thicker. Corbin Kaufusi lacks experience. Both play for a BYU squad that’s made patchwork and finger-in-the-dike moves to shore up its frontcourt this season.

But soaring around blocking shots and grabbing rebounds against St. Mary’s and Pacific this past week, Sharp looked impressively sharp and Kaufusi’s prowess is increasing. The puzzle that is the Cougar frontcourt, odd pieces for sure, may be coming together down the stretch.

Is the challenge solved? Of course not. How much does BYU miss 6-11 veteran Nate Austin, a hamstring patient? Plenty.

But you can’t argue against progress, the kind that’s produced 16 blocked shots the past two games from a Cougar team starved for such defensive stoppage. Sharp and Kaufusi are making a difference.

This past summer, approaching the 18th green at Sleepy Ridge Golf Course near Orem, I did something golfers shouldn’t do. In a loud voice from a distance, I visited with former BYU center Trent Plaisted, who was standing on his patio porch that overlooks the fairway and green.

I asked Plaisted what he thought of 6-10 Kaufusi, a football player who’d just returned from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had been turning heads in pickup games that included current and former players.

“He’s raw, very raw,” said Plaisted. “But he has some athleticism you don’t see on BYU teams very often. He’ll be fun to watch.”

Since that time, Kaufusi has been handled carefully, his progress etching forward in baby steps. He’s been shuffled in and out, sometimes used as foul fodder with the rest of BYU’s frontcourt. But he’s also showed signs that he’s getting a handle on a game he has had very little experience playing.

As Kaufusi and Sharp have moved into BYU’s starting lineup, a morphing of a four-guard starting rotation since a groin injury to senior guard Anson Winder, they’ve both responded as February slides toward March and the Cougars host their final home game with San Diego on Thursday.

This frontcourt has come under heavy scrutiny and criticism. BYU coach Dave Rose has shuffled in not only Kaufusi and Sharp but sophomore Luke Worthington and freshmen Isaac Neilson and Ryan Andrus and sometimes Dalton Nixon in an effort to find a defensive stop, a rebound, a proper rotation on a set.

They’ve played in a glass bubble, always studied, judged and pressured.

Legendary golfer Ben Hogan once said, “I had to learn to concentrate — to ignore the gallery and the other golfers and shut my mind against everything but my own game.”

I think this group is doing that. Late, but doing just that.

Sharp, who played at Lone Peak before signing with Utah then switching to BYU after a church mission, will play in the final home game of his career against San Diego. He’s had his moments, but they’ve been few and far between.

In his last outing, against a much more physical Pacific team trying to pound the ball down BYU’s defensive throat, Sharp had eight rebounds. He even took away a few from star point guard Kyle Collinsworth, who had 12. Three of them were on the offensive end, as many as anyone in the game produced. He also had a pair of blocked shots and only played 15 minutes.

Sharp looked like he was jumping higher than anyone in the game. He probably was. His legs may have the least game mileage on them of anyone BYU played against last week.

“He can rebound. He can jump extremely high,” said Collinsworth of Sharp’s game.

“He makes that extra play, gets a rebound and extra shot. He blocked some shots and just made extra plays for us with his athletic ability.”

Since starting the last three games, Sharp’s minutes have been 15, 25 and 28 against the Tigers, Gaels and LMU Lions. He was 4 of 7 from the field and produced 21 rebounds, three blocks, three steals and 13 points.

Kaufusi had five rebounds and a career-high four blocks against St. Mary's and Brad Waldow, the league's best rebounder. He has had eight blocks in the last three games.

This may not be enough to extend the Cougars’ recent run of success, with road trips to Portland and Gonzaga on the docket next week.

But it’s a start on March and a better handle for Rose heading to Las Vegas for the WCC tournament.

For Sharp, it is a career built into the final weeks of his college days and perhaps it's a beginning for Kaufusi, who is sneaking out of the incubator.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.