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Surf’s up and BYU is riding the wave

No longer splashing in the kiddie pool, these Cougars are out among the breakers and surfing side-by-side with the big boys

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BYU Cougars guard Jaxson Robinson (2) is blocked by Southeastern Louisiana Lions guard Nick Caldwell (22) on Nov. 15, 2023.

BYU Cougars guard Jaxson Robinson (2) is blocked by Southeastern Louisiana Lions guard Nick Caldwell (22) as BYU and SE Louisiana play at the Marriott Center in Provo on Nov. 15, 2023. BYU won 105-48.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When legendary American surfer Laird Hamilton said, “We are all equal before a wave,” he was not referencing the BYU men’s basketball team, but he could have been.

No longer splashing in the kiddie pool, these Cougars are out among the breakers and surfing side-by-side with the big boys — and people are taking notice.

“Surfing is attitude dancing,” said Gerry Lopez. Fellow surfer Phil Edwards added, “The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.”

It’s hard to tell which Cougar is having a better time. Jaxson Robinson is averaging 16.6 points off the bench. Trevin Knell is shooting 44% from the 3-point line. Noah Waterman is up to 6.6 rebounds a game and Aly Khalifa cracks a smile each time he feeds the ball to a back-door cutter for a layup.

Spencer Johnson, the oldest player in DI basketball, has made it a point of emphasis during interviews to reinforce the “team” concept, saying that this group is “all for one and one for all.”

Mark Pope has the best seat in the house, although he prefers to stand most of the time. From the sideline, the BYU head coach has watched this group, which was picked 13th in the 14-team Big 12 preseason poll, climb to No. 14 in the AP national poll in just seven games.

Surfer and philosopher John Kabat-Zinn said, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” After getting dragged along the bottom of the ocean for the last two years in the West Coast Conference, and with a forecast of high tide conditions in the Big 12, these Cougars had no choice but to learn how to surf — and they are loving it.

“There is no secret to balance, you just have to feel the waves,” said surfer Frank Herbert. Feeling their way through seven games, BYU has found its balance through defense, rebounding and 3-point shooting.

After blitzing Fresno State 85-56 last week, the Cougars (7-0) jumped five spots to No. 14 in the AP Top 25. BYU also debuted at No. 2 in the NET rankings, which the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee uses to judge “March Madness” worthiness and seedings.

Understandably, there is a wide range of reaction around Cougar Nation, with most feeling something similar to what Clark W. Griswold described in “Christmas Vacation” after Cousin Eddie showed up. “If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised,” Clark said.

Even as loyal fans lay down good money for a ticket, they wonder if these rankings are legit. No. 2 in the NET? No. 14 in the AP? How is this so? Do we have everyone fooled? Is this team that good? When is the letdown coming?

Cougar fans are guarded. They want to believe but are instinctively preparing for disappointment. They remember the football team, which was flying high at 5-2, before losing five straight games once the competition stiffened.

Rest assured, the waves facing this basketball team only get bigger from here, including on Tuesday night when BYU hosts Evansville (7-1) at the Marriott Center (7 p.m., ESPN+) and Saturday when the Cougars face Utah (5-2) in Salt Lake City (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

Conference play in the Big 12 begins Jan. 6 against Cincinnati. There are currently six Big 12 teams ranked No. 19 or higher.

The season is young and there is a long road ahead to the NCAA Tournament with no guarantee of success. However, of the 351 DI basketball programs, only 14 remain undefeated, including BYU. Of the 351 teams, only 13 are ranked ahead of the Cougars in the AP Top 25. Of the 351, only Houston is ahead of them in the NET.

No one knows how long this BYU team will continue to beat the odds, but who cares? Sports is all about right now, and right now, on Dec. 5, the Cougars are riding a wave the size Provo hasn’t seen since Jimmer was burying 3s in the same spots that Jaxson (Robinson) is.

“It’s all about where your mind’s at,” said surfer Kelly Slater.

“When the surfs up, your life is too,” added surfer Wilhelm Sverdvik.

The surf is up at BYU. Grab your board and take a ride with these guys for as long as you can because, as surfer Bradley Hook said, “Nobody gets to the end of their life and wishes they surfed less.”

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar” available at deseretbook.com.