PROVO — The last time BYU’s men’s basketball team put together a season as magical as this one has the potential to be, during the 2011 run to the Sweet 16, shooting guard Jackson Emery and wing Charles Abouo emerged as the Cougars’ defensive stoppers.
The 6-foot-3 Emery and 6-5 Abouo not only complemented high-scoring Jimmer Fredette on the offensive end — Emery averaged 12.5 points and Abouo 7.2 — they often drew their opponent’s best scorers on the defensive end.
Can 6-6 sophomore guard Connor Harding fill one of those roles on this year’s team?
Absolutely, says coach Mark Pope, who believes Harding has the intangibles necessary to be the lockdown defender the Cougars will need to make a lengthy postseason run.
“He’s a good athlete,” Pope said. “And I think he’s got a big heart, and usually those are pretty good ingredients for a guy who can help you on the defensive end. … He has embraced that role. He has really found ways to improve the focus of his defense and is really attentive to the (defensive game plan).”
Harding said he’s always considered himself a “decent” defensive player, dating back to his days at Highland High in Pocatello, Idaho, when he would always guard the other team’s best offensive threat.
“In college, I have just had the same attitude, the same mindset — I like doing it,” Harding said. “My freshman year, I learned a lot defensively and then had an offseason to work on my footwork and our schemes and just got the fundamentals down. And because of that I have had the opportunity to get in there and make some defensive plays and maybe slow some dudes down.”
Senior guard Jake Toolson played against BYU and Harding in November of 2018 while at Utah Valley in a 75-65 loss to the Cougars at the Marriott Center, but doesn’t remember Harding’s defense being all that special in the freshman’s 15 minutes of playing time. That all changed last summer, after Toolson rejoined BYU for his final season of eligibility.
“We were playing pickup in the summer, and this dude was guarding me every game, and just picking me up full court, just being relentless, just trying to assert his will defensively,” Toolson said. “Connor is a guy who really takes pride in guarding people. He gets a tough matchup every game but I feel like he leads by example. We all want to be able to defend like he does. He sets the bar. He does a phenomenal job.”
Senior guard Zac Seljaas is another wing with good length — he’s 6-7 — who has improved his defense under Pope and the new staff to get more minutes on the floor.
“Honestly, whatever coach needs and wants me to do, I do,” Seljaas said. “He has kind of given me and (Harding) those roles — to go out and play defense as hard as we can. That’s what we are there for. Connor is amazing at it. We are just doing what coach wants. That’s how we roll.”
Pope said Harding’s defensive prowess surfaced in the 90-77 win over Virginia Tech in Maui, Hawaii, when he slowed down high-scoring freshman forward Landers Nolley II in the second half. He’s also slowed senior guard Jordan Ford of Saint Mary’s and San Diego’s Braun Hartfield, one of the top newcomers in the conference this season.
“Connor is such a diligent, hard-working, dedicated young man,” Pope said. “He is going to continue to grow into a great defensive player. And he’s had some unbelievable defensive efforts. Several times this season he has just risen up and came up with huge stops and put forth a really dedicated defensive effort. He is very important to what we do.”
Harding said his defensive efforts haven’t always been perfect. He said he was “chewed out pretty good” after San Francisco’s guards hurt BYU in both meetings, calling Ford, Hartfield and USF’s Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz “some of the harder people to guard in the league.”
Harding diplomatically said Toolson, TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs are the hardest players on BYU’s team to guard in practice, depending on where they are on the floor.
“In certain spots, they are all impossible to stop,” he said.
Harding also played football in high school and was a quarterback at the same school that produced former BYU great Taysom Hill. He said the position helped him get a feel for the importance of positioning and footwork on defense.
He has also thought about watching film of how Emery and Abouo played back in 2011, perhaps giving one of them a call to pick their brains.
“Jackson was defensive player of the year (in the Mountain West Conference),” Harding said. “That’s just impressive.”