On the heels of a third consecutive loss, BYU coach Mark Pope and his staff are searching for answers.
But they’re not easy to come by.
Cougars on the air
No. 2 Gonzaga (18-2, 7-0)
at BYU (17-7, 5-4)
Thursday, 8 p.m. MST
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
In short, the Cougars are reeling right now — with No. 2 Gonzaga visiting the Marriott Center Saturday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN).
BYU (17-7, 5-4) fell behind to San Francisco by as many as 21 points before falling 73-59 Thursday night.
The Cougars are sitting in an unfamiliar spot, in fifth place, in the West Coast Conference standings. They have never finished worse than third since joining the league in 2011-12.
And in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projections, BYU has slipped to a No. 11 seed.
Pope is experimenting with lineups and rotations and trying to figure out how to help his players return to winning.
“Right now, (the game is) testing our togetherness, it’s testing our confidence,” Pope said. “There’s some doubt that swirls in. It’s just what happens when you go through a stretch like this through a season, which everybody does.”
This dismal stretch began a little more than a week ago with a one-point loss at Santa Clara, followed by a three-point setback at Pacific. The Tigers had lost seven straight games.
Then came the defeat to USF, during which the Cougars lost their composure at times and displayed some of their frustration, including a couple of technical fouls. Are these losses compounding each other?
“I don’t know if it’s an emotional hangover. It’s a lot of emotion. That’s what happens when you’re fighting to get better. Certainly, our guys are facing that right now,” Pope said. “I’m still fighting so hard to figure out how to reconcile numbers and feel and look and growth and all those things. I’m not doing a good job right now. That’s something that’s really haunting us right now. We’re really searching and trying to find some answers there.”
Pope, who loves analytics, is confused by what he’s seeing.
For example, on Thursday, freshman center Atiki Ally Atiki was a perfect 5 of 5 from the floor, scored a career-high 10 points, collected four rebounds and blocked a career-high four shots against the Dons. And yet his plus-minus rating was a minus-10 for the game.
Over his last four games, Ally Atiki has made 14 of 16 shots while averaging seven points, four rebounds and two blocks per game. He’s knocked down nine consecutive shots.
“Atiki has been perfect from the field the last two games. I thought he was terrific tonight,” Pope said. “This game drives you crazy because you look at Atiki and he’s playing great. We walk into halftime, and he’s a minus-15 plus-minus. The worst plus-minus on the team. And it drives you crazy trying to sort that out. It’s super frustrating. And that’s a basic number.
“This team is super interesting because all the numbers are backwards and upside down. It’s hard to make sense of them. It makes me feel like I don’t know anything about basketball,” Pope continued. “From my eyes, I thought (Atiki) was terrific and super functional. He’s getting better, there’s no doubt. He’s helping us. And we need him to help us. He’s in there competing. He’s got a really good future in this game. But we’re not super excited about the future right now. We want to win now.”
Against USF, the Cougars were outrebounded 45-37 and they surrendered seven 3-pointers over the final 10 minutes of the first half.
“We’re just not a prolific offensive team. That’s not the makeup of this team,” Pope said. “When we don’t rebound the ball, our game gets really hard. And when we don’t guard the 3-point line for stretches, the game gets really complicated. We’ll start with those things.”
BYU entered Thursday’s game shooting 74% as a team from the free-throw line. Against the Dons, the Cougars made only 12 of 25 attempts from the line. Te’Jon Lucas, a 77% free throw shooter, went 0 of 4, including an air ball on one of those.
BYU had 14 turnovers against USF, compared to 10 assists. That marks the third straight game where the Cougars have had more turnovers than assists.
Offensively, BYU has exhibited poor decision-making, and questionable shot selection.
Pope replaced Caleb Lohner with Gideon George in the starting lineup Thursday, which didn’t make much of a difference.
“We didn’t get great results from it but it’s a small sample size. We’ll keep working ahead,” Pope said. “We might adjust the lineup every game from here on out because you’re taking all the data you have, but then you’re trying to anticipate the growth of guys.”
It’s all part of the process of searching for answers during a losing streak.