Is BYU the basketball team that could be 7-3, possibly 8-2, in the rough-and-tumble Big 12?

Or are the Cougars lucky to be 5-5 in league play, fortunate to be ranked No. 21 in the country, and a team that can’t seem to finish?

“Obviously, it all came down to the defensive end. That’s all the coaches have been preaching. The players, we really just wanted to focus in on that defensive side. We forced 16 turnovers and only turned the ball over seven times. So can’t complain about that.” — BYU wing Jaxson Robinson

After Saturday’s 72-66 win over plucky Kansas State at the Marriott Center in front of 17,446 fans, it could be said the jury is still out on the 2023-24 Cougars. BYU (17-6 overall) looked every bit the team that is No. 8 in the NET rankings and No. 12 in in the first half and the first 14 minutes of the second half against a team that had just knocked off No. 4 Kansas in overtime.

In the final six minutes, however, the Cougars looked hesitant, unsure of themselves, and like a team that was playing not to lose, save that play with just under a minute left when Jaxson Robinson collected an off-target pass from Dallin Hall and drained a 3-pointer that just might have saved the season.

It certainly stopped the bleeding, though Spencer Johnson applied the tourniquet, weaving through the KSU defense for a game-clinching layup with 13 seconds remaining.

Coach Mark Pope, a glass-half-full guy if there ever was one, focused on the positives after BYU climbed into a tie with TCU for seventh-place in the conference standings.

“We kinda got to the rim the way we wanted to. We got shots we wanted. I liked us offensively,” Pope said of the stretch where Kansas State went on a 16-2 run to turn a blowout into a nail-biter. “You are going to go through little spells where things don’t go in, and that is why you win games defensively, and that is why, like, win lose or draw, we are trying to kinda keep going straightforward.”

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There were some troubling developments, however, like how the Cougars were 4 of 12 from the free-throw line in the second half. At one point BYU made only one of eight free-throw attempts.

Missed free throws down the stretch almost cost the Cougars in their 63-58 win at UCF. A couple more makes from 15 feet away might have got them past Utah, Houston and Texas Tech.

BYU’s 10-of-21 performance from the charity stripe “is not my favorite thing in the world, to be clearly honest,” Pope said. “I would like to make some more of those.”

Could the Cougars really be 8-2 in league play? Consider that BYU has had at least a nine-point lead in the second half in eight of its 10 Big 12 games. It’s plausible.

Pope said BYU’s identity in 2023-24 is that of a team where all sorts of guys step up to fill in the blanks when a teammate is injured, or struggling, and that was obviously apparent on Saturday.

Point guard Dallin Hall had a rare off night, going 0 for 5 from the field and recording just three assists in 30 minutes. In stepped Trey Stewart, who had a plus-minus of plus-8 in the 8 minutes, 50 seconds he was on the floor.

“These guys are so collected and together that guys are just like ‘make it up (when someone is down),” Pope said. “This was not an easy game for Dallin tonight. Trey needed to step in and be great, and he did. I love that.

“I am really blessed as a coach to be able to coach this group. It is pretty fun. We got really good stuff ahead of us, and great challenges and really exciting stuff. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Perhaps more credit should have been given to Kansas State, which is No. 21 in defensive efficiency and showed that in the final minutes by holding BYU to just one offensive rebound in the second half and outrebounding the Cougars 42-34.

Unlike in the 82-66 loss to Oklahoma on Tuesday, BYU’s defense was decent in the second half. Kansas State’s terrific trio of guards — Arthur Kaluma, Cam Carter and Tylor Perry — just made some terrific plays, some big shots.

“Obviously, it all came down to the defensive end. That’s all the coaches have been preaching. The players, we really just wanted to focus in on that defensive side,” said Robinson. “We forced 16 turnovers and only turned the ball over seven times. So can’t complain about that.”

Cougars on the air

UCF (4-6, 13-9)
at No. 21 BYU (5-5, 17-6)
Tuesday, 7 p.m. MST
Marriott Center, Provo, Utah
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

Can the Cougars make a run in the middle of the league schedule, now that the slate eases up a bit?

Of BYU’s eight remaining games, five are against teams below the Cougars in the Big 12 standings, and two are against last-place Oklahoma State. But don’t sleep on the Cowboys — they almost beat Oklahoma in Norman Saturday night.

Before BYU heads back out on the road, it hosts Central Florida on Tuesday night. The Knights lost 66-59 to No. 23 Texas Tech on Saturday in Lubbock. The Knights (4-6, 13-9) played without leading rebounder and shot blocker Ibrahima Diallo, who was out with a knee injury.

Kansas State forward Arthur Kaluma (24) lays up the ball while guarded by BYU guard Dallin Hall (30) and other defenders Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Provo, Utah. | Isaac Hale, Associated Press