Maybe it was some sort of sign.

In a chance encounter, the BYU women’s basketball team was at the airport in Los Angeles last weekend when it ran into former NBA superstar Charles Barkley, a Hall of Famer who graciously posed for a picture with the Cougars. 

Barkley represented greatness on the court during his career — and this BYU team seems to have a rendezvous with greatness, too.

This might be coach Jeff Judkins’ best team in his 21 seasons at the helm. The Cougars are ranked No. 17 in The Associated Press poll, and took a 14-1 record (4-0 in West Coast Conference play) into Thursday matchup with Pepperdine in Malibu. BYU’s highest ranking ever came on Dec. 6, 2021, when it landed in the No. 16 spot.

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The Cougars are also projected as a No. 4 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. 

Judkins compares this team to his two previous squads that reached the Sweet 16 in 2002 and 2014. 

A year ago, BYU lost a heartbreaker in the WCC Tournament championship game and then upset Rutgers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before falling narrowly to Arizona, which advanced to the NCAA title game, where it lost to Stanford.

Judkins returned all of his key players — “They’re more mature. They know what’s going on, they understand their roles better; all these things come into play,” he said — plus he added some new pieces.

Utah forward Dasia Young fouls BYU guard Paisley Harding during game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU boasts one of the best backcourts in the country in Shaylee Gonzales and Paisley Harding; one of the top rebounders in the nation in Lauren Gustin; and they might be one of the deepest teams in women’s college basketball as well, with 6-foot-7 Sara Hamson coming off the bench. It’s a team with a blend of savvy veterans, including guards Tegan Graham, Maria Albiero and Kaylee Smiler, and a group of precocious freshmen. And there’s the intangibles, too.

“We have great leaders. Tegan is a vocal leader and Paisley is too,” Judkins said. “Then you have Maria. Nobody plays harder than her. There’s Sara, who’s been through everything as a captain. Shaylee isn’t as vocal but her example brings a lot to the team. We have very good shooters, we have size and we have depth. We’re probably 11 deep.

“We have 11 kids that I could honestly play at any time and feel very comfortable. It’s a good mixture. These freshmen are a really special group. It’s like they had an apprenticeship. They’ve come in and learned how to do things without having to go on the court and making a bunch of mistakes. It’s been a really good thing for us.

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“To be able to have your whole team come back and get these new kids, it’s made a difference,” he continued. “This team is smart. Part of it is, they’ve been around for a while and they pick things up pretty well.”

For all of those reasons, Judkins and his players have lofty expectations. When the team breaks huddles in practice, sometimes they yell, “Final Four!”

“Last year we knocked on the door. We felt like we had a good chance of going to the Sweet 16. We need to win a conference championship,” Judkins said. “We want to win the conference championship and we want to win a tournament championship again. We want to go to the NCAAs and do better.

“This team is not satisfied with just going to the tournament. These seniors didn’t come back just to go to the NCAA Tournament. They came back because they want to go far in the tournament,” Judkins continued. “Our team is very focused that way. They’re focused on getting better every day. We expect to be able to win our conference and go to the NCAA Tournament and hopefully go a long way. That’s what we’re hoping.”

“This team is not satisfied with just going to the tournament. These seniors didn’t come back just to go to the NCAA Tournament. They came back because they want to go far in the tournament.” — BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins

One of the noticeable differences between last year’s team and this year’s squad is Graham is now a starter and Hamson, a strong defensive presence, is not. 

“Part of it is because Tegan understands our team and our system so much better than she did last year,” Judkins said. “The other part is, Sara kept getting into foul trouble. I wanted to not start Sara so I could have her when I need her in certain situations.”

The Cougars are having their way in WCC play. In their four games, the Cougars beat San Francisco (76-64), Pacific (94-68), Saint Mary’s (78-36) and Loyola Marymount (77-37). That is two straight wins by 40-point margins. This season their overall average margin of victory is 19.1 points, which ranks No. 11 nationally.

Against LMU, BYU limited the Lions to 30.6% shooting and forced a season-high 31 turnovers. The Cougars have held two consecutive opponents to under 40 points. 

BYU opened the season by winning its first eight games, including wins against then-No. 17 Florida State and then-No. 22 West Virginia

Just before those two games against ranked foes in St. Petersburg, Florida, Judkins contracted COVID-19 and couldn’t go on the trip, leaving his assistants — Lee Cummard, Ray Stewart and Melanie Day — in charge.

“It was horrible. I sat there and watched these guys. I wasn’t as nervous before the game as I normally am. It was hard,” he said. “I was so proud of my coaching staff and how they handled it. The players responded so well to them. That was a good thing for my assistant coaches to get that opportunity. You’d rather do it during an easier schedule but they did an awesome job and I knew that they would. It was good to see them do so well.”

BYU’s only loss came on the road at Oklahoma, 99-91, in overtime. The Sooners are currently ranked No. 14. 

The Cougars, who rank No. 17 nationally in scoring offense at 78.7 points per game, have offensive firepower with Gonzales (18.2 ppg), Harding (15.8 ppg), Gustin (11.9 ppg) and Graham (11 ppg).

Gonzales and Harding are “very versatile. They can shoot it, they can put the ball on the floor, they can pull up, they can go all the way. They’re very good passers,” Judkins said. “Both of them this year, I’ve seen a really big improvement in moving without the ball and reading the defense and getting away from their defenders.

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“Both of them are explosive. They get the ball and they can drive it or cut hard. I’m really lucky. Sometimes, you get one kid like that. I kind of feel like I have two Alex Barcellos. He scores in so many ways — jump shots, driving, pull-up, cutting, moving. That’s what these guys are. They’re very similar to that.”

Gustin ranks No. 2 nationally in rebounding, averaging 12.4 boards per game. 

“I watch that kid and think, ‘How does she get those rebounds?’ She’s really strong,” Judkins said. “She gets position and you can’t move her out of the way. No. 2, she goes every single time. It’s a habit that she has. Then she has a knack for where the ball is going and coming off. Dennis Rodman had that. Lauren’s the same way.”

BYU might be destined for greatness this season. Will there be another Sweet 16 appearance? Or could the Cougars go places where they’ve never been before? Like the Elite Eight or the Final Four?

Time will tell.  

“I’ve been here a long time. What I’ve noticed about my good teams, your superstars have got to be bought-in and they have to work harder than anyone else. I have that,” Judkins said. “The kids that don’t play much have to have a great attitude to come in every day at practice and work hard and push the starters. I have that. Then your players that come off the bench and play 10 to 18 minutes, they’ve got to come in and be sharp and be ready when their opportunity comes. And I have that. That’s what makes this team really special.”