Can a freshman force respect for a team with postseason dreams?

Has BYU head basketball coach Mark Pope found another dependable weapon to take to the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas?

If he has, he’ll need that, plus all he can muster as a historically low No. 5 seed in this event.

The Cougars will play the winner of Thursday’s Loyola Marymount-Pacific game Friday at 7 p.m. MST at the Orleans Arena.

He’s only 6-foot-6 and this may be his first year of major college competition, but if Fousseyni Traore’s performance in Saturday’s win over Pepperdine is any sign, his comeuppance is just in time for March Madness.

Ever since Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward suffered season-ending injuries, Pope has deployed a pass-and-weave offense to accentuate his experienced backcourt with Alex Barcello and Te’Jon Lucas.

In the meantime, post players, basically converted forwards, Traore and Caleb Lohner, have been posting up, diving down the key off high screens and, to put it in simple terms, they’ve been kind of ignored when they appear to be open.

That was the opposite this past week when Traore fed on Pepperdine inside, making 9 of 10 shots with a freshman school-record 19 rebounds and a career-high 25 points. That effort earned him WCC freshman player of the week honors for the fourth time this season. He averaged 18.5 points and 10.5 rebounds with 71.4% accuracy from the field in the last two games.

True, this came against the struggling opposition from the WCC. But it is a signpost.

This all has to do with competition, experience and team trust.

“As a basketball player, there is intuition as to who you can trust with the ball and who you can’t,” commented Mark Durrant, an analyst for KSL’s game broadcasts.

“When a guard makes a pass to a big man, they are partly responsible for the results. If they get the ball to a big man in a spot that the big man is not going to succeed, they take part of the blame,” said Durrant. 

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“Early in the year, BYU was very effective with Gavin Baxter on the pick and roll. BYU guards knew that they could throw up the lob and that Gavin would get it and score it. When he was injured, it took Fouss a bit of time to earn that same kind of trust. You could see them start to get him the ball in the low post on the Hawaii trip. They knew that if they got him the ball, he wouldn’t panic, he would make good decisions and not turn the ball over, and most importantly, he would score.”

The native of Bamako, Mali, really began to evolve before pulling a groin muscle two weeks ago. This past week, he continued his trajectory.

“Now we’re finally seeing that same confidence they had in Gavin on the pick and roll with Fouss,” said Durrant. 

“Against Pepperdine, they went to him over and over. Teams in the past would commit both defenders to stop Alex on the high screen. Now BYU can make them pay by hitting Traore on the roll, and, if help comes from the wing, they can then kick it to the corner shooter. 

“Having Fouss as a threat down low will make it so much harder for defenses to stop Alex and it will result in many more open 3s. When teams don’t have to worry about inside weapons, it makes defending the perimeter so much easier. BYU now has a massive weapon down low, and he’ll only get better. BYU will be much better for it.”

Traore’s a smaller-sized, inexperienced Yoeli Childs in the paint. He has a long enough reach to block shots of much taller players. He’s athletic enough to jump to his apex very quickly. He has nice touch around the basket and is extremely strong.

Physically, he is more mature than most freshmen you’d see on a BYU roster — even those guys who’ve been on church missions.

Another former Cougar I regularly ask to chime in, Jonathan Tavernari, said the Harward/Baxter situation definitely put Pope in a crunch early.

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“But Fouss and Atiki Ally Atiki have been fresh surprises. Especially Fouss. One thing I’d love to see more from the offense is less weaving around the perimeter and more posting up Fouss and playing through him. We seldom see that. Giving him the ball on the block would open up so much for the outside guys,” said Tavernari. 

“I’d also look to post up Caleb. He regressed from his freshman year to this season and I truly believe had he been more involved on the offense, especially on mismatches on the low block and on the perimeter, we could’ve seen a different Lohner this season,” he said.

The Cougars are 4-1 since that disastrous midseason four-game losing streak. The only loss came on the road against Saint Mary’s, a game the Cougars had a chance to tie or win in the closing seconds on missed bomb tries by Barcello. SMC is fresh off an upset of top-ranked and No. 1 WCC seed Gonzaga.

BYU’s losing streak, the four-game slump that cost this team a crisis of confidence, came after losing a four-point lead with 40 seconds left at Santa Clara. Other losses in that span were to Gonzaga, San Francisco and lowly, last-place Pacific.

That losing streak effectively knocked the Cougars out of the national rankings, respectable NET rankings that would have ensured an NCAA berth and placed Pope and his players in a position of having to fight to get in from the outside.

It’s a chip on the shoulder postseason script.

Will it work?

Chances are definitely higher with a fired-up freshman Traore.