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‘Taking what the defense gives us’: No. 22 BYU reinventing itself with Fouss Traore back in the lineup

Cougars found an inside game to beat Texas, now turn their attention to two difficult Big 12 road games

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BYU center Aly Khalifa (50) passes the ball while blocked by Texas forward Dylan Disu (1) during their game on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

BYU center Aly Khalifa passes during a game against Texas in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

One of the BYU basketball team’s more remarkable traits this season has been its ability to reinvent itself on both ends of the floor to pull off some impressive victories.

For instance, coach Mark Pope and his staff sprung a 1-3-1 zone defense, or variations thereof, to almost upset No. 4 Houston last Tuesday and to knock off Texas 84-72 on Saturday.

“We got a mixture of a lot of different things we can do with all three bigs, and we want to utilize their skills when we can.” — BYU wing Jaxson Robinson

The Cougars have also changed the way they play offensively in recent weeks, thanks in part to the return of 6-foot-6 junior post player Fousseyni Traore. Big Fouss, a mainstay in the Cougars’ lineup the past two seasons, sustained a hamstring injury in the 95-86 win over North Carolina State in Las Vegas on Nov. 24 and has been in and out of the lineup ever since.

He has completely missed eight games, most notably the loss at Utah and the big home win over No. 24 Iowa State.

In the win over Texas last Saturday, Traore showed he’s close to full strength again with a monster game inside against the Longhorns when the visitors were taking away BYU’s perimeter, 3-point shooting game the best they could. Traore finished with 16 points on 6 of 7 shooting and also blocked two shots.

“I thought he was good,” Pope said. “I thought he was super deliberate, and I thought he brought a real physicality to the game. … I thought probably two of Fouss’ best plays the whole game were actually (his) assists out of the short roll. I thought he was brilliant. I thought he had a huge impact on the game.”

Pope said that when the Cougars huddled up in the second half, leading scorer Jaxson Robinson lobbied to keep going to Traore inside.

“So you know when guys are coming in the huddle and saying we need to go in that direction that he is having a huge impact on the game,” Pope said.

Appearing on BYU Sports Nation on Monday, point guard Dallin Hall said Traore’s return has been “huge” for the Cougars, now at No. 22 in The Associated Press Top 25.

“Teams are scouting us (heavily),” Hall said. “They are trying to throw different ball screen coverages at us. And a lot of teams resort to switches because they just can’t handle the shooters.  And so you can’t switch on Fouss. We talk about it, we say it is good as soon as you give it to him in the post. Because he’s going to go score.”

One of the silver linings to Traore’s injury situation has been the emergence of fellow big man Aly Khalifa, the transfer from Charlotte. Junior Atiki Ally Atiki has also developed into a nice threat in the post, although he didn’t get in the game against Texas.

Khalifa, who is No. 9 in the country in assist-turnover ratio (3.48), is one of the best passing bigs in the country, if not the best. 

Pope said guys such as Robinson, Richie Saunders and Noah Waterman are getting so adept at cutting to the basket and making themselves targets for Khalifa’s passes that the “Egyptian Magician” is thriving when he’s on the court.

BYUWV

Cougars on the air


No. 22 BYU (3-4, 15-5)
at West Virginia (3-5, 8-13)
Saturday, 4 p.m. MST
WVU Coliseum, Morgantown
TV: ESPN+
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

“It takes a lot of energy and expertise and kind of a relentless effort,” Pope said. “We had so many guys that were punishing that way. It is really important. … When (teams) are taking away 3s, we have to be functional with the way these guys were and they were special doing it tonight.”

Robinson said the Cougars need all three of their bigs playing at a high level if they want to achieve their goals.

“We got a mixture of a lot of different things we can do with all three bigs, and we want to utilize their skills when we can,” Robinson said.

BYU had a midweek bye this week and doesn’t play again until Saturday, a Big 12 showdown at West Virginia, which was 2-5 in league play and 7-13 overall heading into Wednesday night’s game against Cincinnati.