PROVO — BYU finished third, again, in the West Coast Conference and was bounced in the first round, again, of the National Invitation Tournament.
But did the Cougars, who posted a 24-11 record, overachieve this season?
When you consider that star forward Eric Mika left Provo last spring to turn pro and guard Nick Emery withdrew from school just days before the season tipped off, and then consider that coach Dave Rose brought in associate head coach Heath Schroyer and the staff drastically revamped BYU’s style of play, there were a lot of questions surrounding the Cougars.
“If I went back to the beginning of the season, I’d say they overachieved,” said Mark Durrant, a former BYU player and longtime color analyst for Cougar basketball radio broadcasts. “Listen, Mika was awesome. You build your program around guys like that. It would certainly help to have another shooter and competitor like Nick. As the year went on and we saw Yoeli (Childs) and Elijah (Bryant) and how good they were and TJ (Haws) at times, you thought maybe this team has something. They maybe underperformed in certain games. Overall, I would say they exceeded my expectations.”
Former BYU coach Steve Cleveland said the Cougars “took a step forward this year. Some of the changes and adjustments made over the summer that coach Rose addressed, you watched them play and knew that there was an increased culture of accountability. Defensively, there was better execution. Offensively, there was better decision-making and shot selection. And I thought there was really good chemistry with this group on and off the floor.”
Among the highlights of the 2017-18 season included a home victory over arch-rival Utah — the first win over the Utes in five years. In WCC Tournament semifinals, the Cougars vanquished Saint Mary’s, snapping a five-game losing streak to the Gaels.
And there was the emergence of Bryant and Childs, who averaged 18.2 and 17.8 points per game, respectively.
“I didn’t think Elijah would be that good. He was amazing,” Durrant said. “We saw glimpses of that last year but to be as consistent as he was and as good as a 3-point shooter as he was, I always knew he’d be good but he was really, really good. I expected Yoeli to continue his progression.”
So what does the future hold for BYU basketball?
The Deseret News asked Cleveland and Durrant for their insights and perspective regarding salient issues facing the program.
STATE OF THE PROGRAM
The Cougars haven’t won a WCC regular-season or tournament championship in seven years as members of the league. BYU hasn’t been earned an NCAA Tournament berth in three years.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga reportedly is mulling a move from the WCC to the Mountain West Conference — perhaps as early as next season — which would significantly weaken the WCC.
The message from the NCAA Tournament committee, which snubbed Saint Mary’s, is that teams from mid-major conferences must upgrade their non-conference schedules to merit an at-large berth.
“In the WCC, if you’re not playing Saint Mary’s or Gonzaga, you’re playing Quadrant 3 or Quadrant 4 games,” Cleveland said. “You had better improve your preseason schedule because you can’t really make any strides.”
“It’s a tough landscape right now for BYU,” Durrant said. “It’s a significant challenge for BYU to continue to compete at a high level until something changes.”
The Cougars have finished in third place five times in seven years in the WCC.
“I suspect Saint Mary’s might take a step back next season because they lose so much experience,” Cleveland said. “This is BYU’s opportunity to be one of the top two teams in the league because of who they have returning. For me, the turning point of the season was beating Saint Mary’s. That win over Saint Mary’s re-established them in this conference. Gonzaga’s always going to be good. They might not even be in the league. But whether they are here or not, I think BYU is more prepared and positioned to compete for a WCC championship and get back to the NCAA Tournament than they have at any time that they’ve been in this league.”
ROSTER SHAKEUPS AND THE SCHOLARSHIP CRUNCH
In order to contend for a league title, the Cougars need to return their main nucleus of players from this season.
With so many of BYU's recruits serving LDS missions, it’s always been difficult to manage rosters. And when players get injured, transfer or decide to forgo their eligibility to turn pro, there’s even more attrition. It's a constant balancing act for Rose and his staff.
For two consecutive years, the Cougars haven’t had a single senior on their roster.
Fewer and fewer players spend four years at the same school as part of a growing trend in college basketball.
Childs, a sophomore, has said that he will likely test the NBA draft waters this spring while Bryant, a junior, is expected to do the same. If the Cougars were to lose one, or both, of those players, it would be another big blow to the program.
“Even the first scent of making some money, guys are taking it. You would hope that BYU would be insulated from some of that,” Durrant said. “It’s not Kentucky or Duke with its one-and-done thing. Even at BYU, it’s just not the mindset anymore. They either want to go to the NBA or the grass is greener somewhere and they’re able to transfer.”
Emery’s status is uncertain. He left school amid off-court issues and an ongoing NCAA investigation. Emery has publicly declared his intention of returning to BYU next season.
Among others scheduled to return — forwards Dalton Nixon, Payton Dastrup and Luke Worthington; guards Jahshire Hardnett, Zac Seljaas, Rylan Bergerson and walk-ons McKay Cannon and Evan Troy; and forwards Ryan Andrus and Braiden Shaw (who both missed the season due to injuries).
Meanwhile, the Cougars will add freshmen forwards Gavin Baxter and Connor Harding to the roster as both are scheduled to return home from missions in the next few months. Forward Kolby Lee joined the Cougars in December but did not play this year. He was not expected to return home from his mission until 2019.
BYU currently has 15 players, not including walk-ons, but only 13 scholarships available.
It could be another turbulent off-season in terms of roster movement.
“That’s a challenge for coach Rose right now, trying to decide on who those 13 players are going to be that get scholarships,” Cleveland said. “I know it’s a challenge because I had to go through it myself.”
“That’s probably the biggest challenge Dave Rose has — keeping guys together and keeping them happy and getting some seniors on the team,” Durrant said. “On every team I played on, there were always excellent senior leaders. Two years in a row without a senior? That’s unheard of. I don’t know how much this is Dave’s fault or not, it’s like, throw up all the players and see who remains. In order for BYU to compete against the really good schools, you need to have players that are seniors that have played together.”
If Rose can keep this team together to go along with key additions, the prospects for next season seem promising.
“You’re looking at a team that’s played for two years together. They’ve had some big wins and some disappointing losses,” Cleveland said. “If there was ever a team prepared to win a WCC championship and get back to the (NCAA) Tournament, I would say this team over the next two years will have a great opportunity to take another step forward.”
3-POINT SHOOTING WOES
The 3-point line is the great equalizer in college basketball and being an outstanding 3–point shooting team is something the Cougars should focus on, Durrant said.
“In the areas where they should be good and should be able to compete, like 3-point shooting, they need to be better. That was the real downfall of this year’s team.”
This season, BYU shot 34.7 from 3-point range, ranking No. 192 in the nation out of 351 teams.
Haws shot 40 percent from 3 as a freshman (76 of 188), compared to 31 percent this year (50 of 162). Seljaas shot 50 percent from 3-point territory as a freshman (68 of 136) but only 29 percent (23 of 78) this season.
“You never know what’s going on behind the scenes with health issues or what kids are going through,” Durrant said. “But if you would have told me before the season that Zac and TJ would have the numbers they did, I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s amazing that BYU did as well as it did without the 3-point shooting numbers. That’s a credit to Elijah and Yoeli. They were fantastic. If you already have the deficiencies in athleticism and size, that’s how you’re able to compete — being able to shoot well.”
Rose said recently that he, and a lot of coaches, have learned lessons about what the NCAA Tournament selection committee is looking at when considering at-large bids — and it involves playing a rigorous non-conference schedule.
Cleveland knows the challenge of scheduling Power 5 opponents and getting them to play in Provo.
“It is difficult to get those games. You can get them on the road or at a neutral site,” he said. “Coach Rose is going to have to tweak his schedule in the spring and summer. A great place to play (Power 5 opponents) is in tournaments. You start with tournaments and neutral site games and then if you have to, you go on the road and play them at their place. It would be in that order. If at their place is all you can get, then that’s what you do. You hope to get a 2-for-1.”
A year ago, Rose hired Schroyer as an associate head coach and the Cougars changed their style, with an emphasis on valuing possessions and playing with defensive intensity.
“If you haven’t won a conference title in seven years and you’re in the same spot that you were at the beginning behind Gonzaga, you need to change. Dave showed a willingness to change and try to get better,” Durrant said. “To me, that’s the path forward. If this team stays together and gets older and better, that’s the right approach. I think he does a great job. I like the direction. I want to win conference tournaments and go to the NCAAs. I don’t excuse not doing that. But I think Dave Rose is an excellent coach and did a great job this year.”
With Schroyer taking the head coaching job at McNeese State, Rose will be hiring a new assistant during the offseason.
Rose has completed his 13th season at the helm, having posted an overall record of 329-122 and averaging 25 wins per season. He needs 43 more victories to overtake legendary Stan Watts as BYU’s all-time wins leader.
Rose guided the Cougars to a Sweet Sixteen appearance seven years ago and expectations are always high in terms of winning league titles and going to the NCAA Tournament.
In 2015, Rose signed a five-year contract extension through 2019-20.
Cleveland, who hired Rose on his BYU staff 20 years ago, said he has no idea how long Rose will continue coaching.
“What I do know about Dave is, he’s the most competitive person I’ve ever known in this business,” he said. “The fire is still burning inside him. Only he will be able to know when enough is enough. He has a great mind in terms of putting game plans together and taking a group of players with their strengths and weaknesses and figuring out the best way to be as successful as they can be.
“Over the course of his 13 years, there’s been so much good that’s happened in this program,” Cleveland continued. “And he’s probably created some of the problems for himself. He’s had so much success that there are expectations that can’t always be lived up to. But a lot of teams would like to be 24-11 right now.”