Has BYU turned the corner heading into March?

Has Mark Pope refocused his players, gained confidence, rebuilt chemistry? Is there a chance the 20-win Cougars could extend their season and perhaps find some way to get into the NCAA Tournament?

The convincing 79-59 win over Loyola Marymount Thursday night in the Marriott Center and a hard-fought comeback battle that fell short at Saint Mary’s in Moraga, California, last week give hope.

But Thursday’s win was over a struggling LMU squad mired in a nine-game losing streak.

Against that kind of foe, yes, BYU looked very good, on point.

Pope has to use that 79-59 win to build some momentum.

Pope can sell ice machines to polar bears.

This is his time to chime.

“For 30 minutes, we probably had real defensive urgency. This team, if we’re at 100% all-in on the defensive end, all five guys, we have a chance to be a terrific, high-level defensive team,”  Pope told reporters afterward.

And that’s true.

On Thursday, Pope trotted out his 10th different starting lineup this season.

Those are chess moves.  

Before the win over LMU on Thursday, you had to wonder if BYU could muster an improved defense vs. the Lions. Just more than a week ago, LMU built a 17-point lead on BYU in Los Angeles, took the Cougars into overtime, where Pope’s squad held on for an 83-82 win in the extra session.

That first LMU game should never have been that close — despite a big free-throw discrepancy. 

In that first meeting, LMU shot a blistering .568 from the field, 43% from beyond the arc.

In the rematch, the Cougars defended LMU better, holding the Lions to 38% from the field, 36% from distance. They were in control, looked loose, engaged, on target and played with an edge.

BYU dominates defensively, controls the paint, cruises to rare blowout victory
3 keys to BYU’s win against Loyola Marymount

But, LMU played without star Keli Leaupepe, who had 26 points on 12 of 17 shooting in that first game.

That’s a big asterisk.

But then, the Cougars were without senior Seneca Knight, out with a thumb injury. Did that balance out the absence of Leaupepe?  

Probably not. But Pope’s defense did look better.

He explained his team is kind of living on the edge, though. Injuries have taken a toll, impacting choices, matchups and depth to play at a high level in getting after opponents.

Early this season when his team seemed a shoo-in to make the NCAA tourney, ranked in the top 15, the Cougars were rebounding hard, playing very intense defense, and throwing opponents off their game.

“A lot of teams have that potential. But a lot of teams, if they dip to 99%, they’re still really good defensively. We’re not,” said Pope.

“If we dip to 99%, we spring leaks everywhere. Over the course of this season, we got punched in the face with injuries and some circumstances. It took a team that was like, every possession engaged defensively. We’ve got knocked back and we’ve tried to find ourselves. We became a 99% defensive energy team. We’re working our way back.”

The Cougars host Pepperdine Saturday night on Senior Night, the regular-season home finale barring a late, quick-fix makeup game with a nonleague opponent.

The good news is sophomore forward Caleb Lohner (13 points, 11 rebounds) is playing his best ball of the season. If he continues to be a factor on both ends of the floor, that eases things for a pair of freshmen, Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki, to continue to find an effective presence inside.

Pope’s crew is closer to making a run in Las Vegas than they were 10 days ago. 

But it will take another big jump in a short time to take teams like San Francisco, and the way things stand now as a possible No. 5 seed, the Cougars will have to play a Friday game in Vegas.

That’s an awful lot of work to get done, both now and out of a suitcase at the Orleans Arena, where they hope to have a long stay with little depth.