UCF is coming to town Tuesday night and BYU is grinding to stay competitive in Big 12 play.

This is a league of survivors.

The longest win streak in Big 12 play at this stage of the season is two games, both by Houston and Iowa State.

As evidenced in how BYU held on to defeat Kansas State on Saturday, this is a league that puts teams through a wood chipper. 

Just back from a long road trip in both miles and duration, the Cougars split with West Virginia and Oklahoma. The win over Kansas State went from a 17-point blowout to a nail-biter within minutes.

KSU, just a year from playing in the Elite Eight, found a way to chip away at BYU and what seemed to be easy turned into a hard win, thanks to a timely 3-point splash from Jaxson Robinson in the waning moments.

Here’s a key point of the grind BYU is in right now.

Dallin Hall is a gem. He’s proven to be one of the best point guard quarterbacks in the league.  

He’s smart, athletic, an outstanding shooter, great facilitator, strong with the ball, heady and plays with a racing engine that is redlined almost all the time.

But he’s susceptible to getting worn down in this league. He needs protection. He needs rest for the remaining stretch and for the Big 12 tournament.

Hall has 29 assists and four turnovers in his last five games.

In this league, that’s elite.

But on Saturday, while delivering another great effort, he was reticent to shoot. He wasn’t the same penetrator, he didn’t look the same in the two-man game with Fouss Traore and Aly Khalifa. He was seen riding an exercise bike during the game to keep himself loose and warm.

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BYU needs Hall as healthy and physically prepared as possible if the Cougars are to finish above .500 and avoid that early Tuesday game in the league tournament.

And that’s the dilemma. How do you keep Hall going at a high level when he’s needed so much on both ends of the court?

Well, you ration out his load in practices, and get him more breaks during games.

This is where head coach Mark Pope has used Robinson, Spencer Johnson and even Trevin Knell at times in Big 12 play.

On Saturday, we saw the return of Trey Stewart to the court after he struggled against Cincinnati with four turnovers in as many minutes.

Against Kansas State, a team with pesky, fast and athletic guards, Stewart played just nine minutes but got two huge in-space rebounds, two steals and made his first shot.

These are critical minutes for Stewart. His energy and athleticism are sorely needed — if he’s productive.

In a sense, BYU’s finish in the next eight games depends on how effective Hall is and a part of that formula is Stewart.

Cougars on the air

UCF (4-6, 13-9)
at No. 19 BYU (5-5, 17-6)
Tuesday, 7 p.m. MST
Marriott Center, Provo, Utah
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

“He’s brought tremendous energy to our practices and our locker room and played great in practices,” said Pope of Stewart. “His minutes were really important and he contributed greatly to this win.”

On Saturday, BYU had five players in double-figure scoring, a real key to the success of Pope’s team. Those players were Noah Waterman (11), Johnson (12), Knell (10), Robinson (12) and Traore (14).

Two players who were missing from that punch were Hall (one point on 0-for-5 shooting) and Richie Saunders, the most productive player for minutes played this season (0 points on 0-for-2 shooting). Hall had three assists in the KSU win, when he’d been averaging twice that.

In a sense, it was an achievement that BYU beat Kansas State, even though the Cougars led by 17, without more boxes checked by Hall and Saunders.

And that points to just how effective BYU played on defense, which Pope says is his No. 1 priority.

Come Tuesday and beyond, it’s all hands on deck for this team that is tied for seventh in the Big 12.

Pope will need everyone, especially a healthy Hall backed by a productive Stewart.

BYU guard Trey Stewart brings the ball up court during a game against Evansville on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, in Provo, Utah. Quality minutes from Stewart could be vital for the Cougars during the second half of the Big 12 regular season. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press