Dave Rose has his BYU team facing a huge game against San Francisco. Big game? Again?
Of late, it seems every game is a dire affair of survival and Thursday night in Provo maintains the narrative.
This has been a strange season for BYU basketball.
There have been injuries, last-minute losses, a pair of overtime thrillers that ended up heartbreakers at Illinois State and UNLV, comebacks that fell short, wins that seemed so far out of reach, and a head-scratcher loss at Weber State — the first for a Dave Rose-coached team, a squad that later beat both Utah and Utah State.
There’ve been lineup changes, freshmen elevated and the return of a former star whose spirit was almost broken to the core. The season has been an emotional roller coaster. So much was expected.
And now the Cougars host the University of San Francisco Thursday night in the Marriott Center before moving on to national power Gonzaga on Saturday, with a real chance to end up with the No. 2 seed in the West Coast Conference in Las Vegas. The first two seeds receive byes to the semifinals on Monday before the Tuesday championship game March 12.
Suddenly, the Cougars are hitting big shots in crunch time.
And suddenly Rose has seen his squad play team defense tough enough to thwart other teams on the road during a five-game win streak that equals the best stretch of games of the season.
Fresh off this streak, Rose watched his team do something last week it has really struggled to do all season — come back from way down and win.
“I think in our last two games, we trailed for about 81 of 85 minutes of play and ended up with victories on the road,” Rose said. “I’m happy for these guys. They’ve been through a lot.”
Earlier, players hit stretches when their offensive acumen just got away from them and the guys got lost and kind of quit. For a myriad of reasons, there was no jump-start, no reprieve, no bounce back. Now, when these guys hit a scoring skid, there’s more fight, more confidence to end it, more gas in the tank, more demand to pick things up.
In short, getting trapped in the corner of the ring and getting hit isn’t as daunting. They are fighting out and into the center of things and seem more than capable of landing some big hits.
Last week’s wins are almost the opposite of what we’re used to seeing out of a Rose-coached team. Through most of his tenure, his teams normally carve out leads and hang on till the end. Now, they’re the comeback kids.
And that’s a tribute to the leadership that’s emerged the past two and a half weeks. They have not quit.
After enduring a rocky season, it has been impressive. There are plenty of signs that this team has fought a lot of demons away from the public arena — and figured things out.
McKay Cannon has been butting heads, doing a lot of the dirty work up front on defense, a leader in effort. His shot selection seems in rhythm and his shots have turned deadly and accurate.
TJ Haws is a catalyst, getting everyone involved and is money from the line.
Yoeli Childs, who has been better at avoiding early fouls, floats around outside the first 10 minutes, then does the opposite late and gets his points and boards. He’s consistent.
Nick Emery’s return hasn’t exactly been a big splash, but he’s accepted a different kind of role, one of acquiescence as a high-effort player who delivers key buckets and consistent defense and emotion.
Freshman Gavin Baxter has become a spark as a starter. His athleticism is raw and explosive and he’s taken a turn as a rim protector and disruptor on the top of the zone defense.
The current starting lineup is 4-0, a big part of the five-game win streak.
Zac Seljaas and freshman Connor Harding have accepted roles that fit needs. Seljaas going 4 for 4 from distance against Loyola Marymount may be a turning point in regaining his confidence from his freshman campaign. Emotionally, and from a focus standpoint, senior Luke Worthington has been glue in the huddle and sideline, aside from minutes played.
“I like how these guys have handled things,” Rose said. “They sense the urgency and have responded.”
That’s what makes Thursday night so interesting.
How will the roller coaster go? Up or down?