Caleb Lohner plays the guitar.

Early on, as anyone close to someone learning a musical instrument will tell you, it can be pretty rough. Developing such a skill requires time and patience — both for the performer and for those around them.

For Lohner, the guitar is not terribly different from basketball, where the 6-foot-8 BYU sophomore is still searching for consistency on hitting the right chords at the right moment.

He still needs time and fans need patience.

Thursday night, during the Cougars’ late-game demise at Santa Clara, Lohner was sitting on Mark Pope’s bench, where he spent the last 10:23 of the game.

It hadn’t been his night. He played just 13 minutes, missed all five of his shots, including a trio of wide-open 3-pointers, and gathered a meager three rebounds. BYU’s best defender sat and watched Santa Clara score two layups in the last nine seconds to upset the Cougars 77-76.

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Lohner played small on a night when BYU needed him and his 6-8 frame to play big.

It was a far cry from recent road performances at No. 4 Gonzaga, where he scored 17 points, or at San Francisco, where his pair of late-game baskets and a key rebound propelled the Cougars to a 71-69 come-from-behind victory.

Even last week against Portland, he wowed the Marriott Center crowd by scoring the game’s first seven points and brought down the house with a thunderous dunk in the second half. But scattered among those high moments are recent games against Westminster (0 points), Pacific (2), Saint Mary’s (2), San Diego (2) and Santa Clara (0).

Welcome to the life of a sophomore who is being asked to play like a senior. He’s also a forward who is being challenged to play as a center, and sometimes as a guard. It’s like asking a young guitarist to stop playing “Smoke on the Water” and instead, stand up in front of a national audience and play “Stairway to Heaven.”

No one feels the absence of injured big men Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter more than Lohner. They were supposed to be his role models. Still a youngster himself, he is now surrounded by freshmen Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki, who are staring back at him —looking to be led.

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It’s not a case of the blind leading the blind, but it is very much a case of a young sophomore leading two raw freshmen that barely speak English.

On nights, like Thursday, it can appear to be too much, even for a kid who looks like Thor or Hercules and wants to play like Larry Bird.

Recently an opposing coach told Blaine Fowler and me during our BYUtv pregame meetings that their hope was for Lohner to make his first 3-point shot because they knew if he did, he would keep shooting them.

That might sound cruel, but in the competitive nature of basketball, when a player is making just 5 of 37 3-pointers (13.5%), that’s the shot opposing teams want him to shoot.

Santa Clara coach Herb Sendek hasn’t won 502 games for being an idiot. If you are wondering why, after the Broncos play 25 seconds of tenacious defense, that Lohner ends up with the ball and a wide-open shot from the corner — it’s not by mistake.

The upside for Lohner is that he is still young, and these learning moments are critical for his development.

He can shoot. I have watched him stay after practice and hit one shot after the other. However, in a game, when things get sped up, his timing gets off, and on some nights, nothing goes in. This is a scenario we see play out all the time when a young player faces high expectations and too much responsibility too soon.

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Zach Wilson’s sophomore season for Kalani Sitake was all over the place. He threw 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions and fans clamored for the backups. But once the game slowed down, Wilson turned his junior year of 33 touchdown passes, three interceptions and 10 rushing touchdowns into the preamble for his professional career.

Lohner is not Wilson. He’s bigger, stronger, faster and plays a different sport. But the requirements of patience and practice are the same to reach his potential.

Pope is banking that he will. He must. Lohner will be a big piece of his front line when the Cougars march into the Big 12 Conference in 2023.

Fortunately for all involved, the “New Kids on the Block” will be grown men by then. They will be a much older band that is very familiar with what each performer brings to the stage.

In sports and life, what goes around often comes around and eventually there will be a price to pay for an opposing coach whose strategy is to leave Lohner open so that he will take a shot. 

We saw a glimpse of that last year at Pacific when Lohner made 5 of 6 3-point shots and finished with 19 points and nine rebounds. His return to Stockton, California, on Saturday night may be just what the shot doctor ordered.

When Keith Urban takes the stage at USANA in September, he will do so as one of the greatest guitar players in the world. Years ago, in Western Australia, a much younger Urban approached the legendary Glen Campbell seeking advice as to how to play like him.

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“Practice!” Campbell said. “Practice. Learn your trade.”

The advice holds true for Lohner and everyone else trying to master a skill. The payoff is in the performance and the days are coming when Lohner will hit just the right chords at just the right time.

Until then, the price he must pay is practice and the price for Pope and Cougar fans is patience.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.

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