Is this BYU basketball team built for tournament play?

Well, let’s break down what tournament teams need to do in order to progress to see how the Cougars match up.

All good postseason teams have point guards that can make a difference, especially late in the shot clock or at the end of close contests. 

Successful tournament teams have depth to play multiple games in a row. It also helps if a team with an eye on surviving can play physical and weather games in which officials let players bang around and play.

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Good tournament teams have structure to accent roster talent. This means executing in half-court sets, excelling with set plays and cohesive chemistry. It really, really makes a difference to have a go-to scorer or two to lean on during scoring droughts.

The final big factor is shooting acumen — from inside and out. In particular, the 3-point shot is huge in making runs, catching up and building leads.

In most of these categories, BYU grades above average to good. The biggest weakness is consistent firepower from distance, a trait in which last year’s team led the nation.

But there are different ways to win, as Mark Pope’s squad is discovering heading toward March.

Haarms steps up

Matt Haarms just underwent an attitude adjustment. It might prove crucial to a more full utilization of his 7-foot-3 size advantage.

In BYU’s game against Gonzaga, Haarms was almost AWOL, a ghost. He was scoreless and had one rebound in 16 minutes. A water boy could have done what he did. Blindfolded.

Brigham Young Cougars forward Matt Haarms (3) smiles after scoring two of his 23 points in the game against Portland.
Brigham Young Cougars forward Matt Haarms (3) smiles after scoring two of his 23 points in the game against Portland at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Apparently, assistant coach Chris Burgess and Pope himself challenged Haarms, who is from Amsterdam. Be it feeling intimidated by the No. 1 Zags, having a bad day, or just shying away from a fight, they made it clear they wanted Haarms to play more like a Viking than a tulip picker.

Haarms responded. A guy like that should dominate the key. He should swat shots, rebound like a banshee and score on smaller opponents.

Haarms took it out on the next two WCC foes during a California swing at Pacific and Loyola Marymount, scoring 29 points with nine boards. He had 21 points on 7 of 8 shooting with two rebounds, three assists and a BYU career-high five blocks at LMU. Both were BYU road win blowouts and Haarms set the tone.

Getting Haarms ignited and fused up goes hand-in-hand with the physical play of Richard Harward and athleticism of Gideon George and freshman Caleb Lohner. These frontliners give Pope impressive depth and a safety net when fouls mount. That Haarms and point guard Alex Barcello continue to perfect the pick and roll move, is, well, imperative.

The Lohner factor

The freshman from Wasatch Academy is finding a comfort zone at the right time for Pope. He remains one of the most gifted rebounders in the WCC, the top rebounder for the Cougars and after missing his first dozen 3-pointers of his college career, he is beginning to snap net from distance — a huge bump for the Cougars because of how opponents are defending BYU’s point guards and post players.

How BYU freshman Caleb Lohner quickly became Cougars’ top rebounder

Sitting back watching in Sanpete County is his Wasatch Academy coach, Dave Evans.  Lohner lived with the Evans family while attending Wasatch Academy away from his home in Dallas, Texas.

Evans has observed how Lohner has started to feel more comfortable, had the game slow down for him, and adjusted to major college competition.

“We talk a couple of times a week,” said Evans. “He’s been so pro BYU, loves the whole staff, and is a team player. Coach Burgess is the one that’s usually working the most with Caleb because he has a great disposition. Caleb has been frustrated with himself at times. I just knew it was a matter of time before he got it started.”

How BYU freshman Caleb Lohner quickly became Cougars’ top rebounder

Evans said Lohner’s biggest challenge is getting completely comfortable and now things are beginning to click. “He’s been rebounding and guarding at a high level and now the scoring is coming. I knew that was only a matter of time. That jump from high school to college is big and I don’t think people realize how big a jump that is.”

Lohner had a career-high 19 points with nine rebounds at Pacific. He made 6 of 8 shots including 5 of 6 from beyond the arc. Against LMU, Lohner scored 18 on 6 of 10 shooting, 2 of 3 from beyond the arc.

Evans said BYU’s fanbase can be “absolutely fantastic” but, at times, can be hard on players. “When they’re doing really well, they’re very supportive. Caleb did struggle early, but I knew it was only a matter of time before he found his stroke. He shot the ball extremely well for us.”

BYU has been working with Lohner on the IQ part of the college game.

“That is what is going to separate him because his athleticism is there. He has a 40-inch vertical and he’s 6-8 and 230 pounds,” Evans said. “He’s built like an NBA guy already. He really wants to play professional ball and is willing to work hard to get there.”

If Lohner continues his team leadership in rebounding, now at 6.7 a game, he will be the first freshman to do so in 14 years, following Trent Plaisted in 2005-06 with a 6.9 per game average. He leads the WCC in three-point percentage in conference play with at least 11 attempts, hitting 12 for 20 for 60%.

The Cougars did not have Lohner playing this well in losses to USC and Boise State, but he was a competitive bright spot in both games with top-ranked Gonzaga.

Backcourt smarts

The point guard factor is in good hands with Barcello and Brandon Averette proving deadly at times off the dribble and from 3-point land. 

If you take advanced analytics of the WCC’s best players, Gonzaga has four of the top-ranked players. The fifth is Barcello because of his productivity in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals — his overall game.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) looks to shoot in front of Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Corey Kispert (24) during a basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. BYU lost 71-82. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

BYU’s balanced scoring the past half dozen games is unique. The Cougars have had six different scoring leaders in six games. Those include Spencer Johnson (Pepperdine, 15), Averette (Pacific, 24), George (Portland, 19), Barcello (Gonzaga, 20), Lohner (Pacific, 19), and Haarms (LMU, 21).

Pope’s team struggled early making 3s but has improved the past seven games heading into this week’s games against San Francisco and Saint Mary’s. In those seven games the Cougars averaged 40.7% from distance and made 10 or more 3s in four of those seven games.

Conclusion?  BYU could make a postseason run if it obtained a favorable seed of 5, 6 or 7. It would be tough with an 8 or 9 seed in Indianapolis. Most bracketologists have the Cougars comfortably in the Big Dance.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi’s Feb. 19 bracket had BYU a No. 8 seed playing UCLA in the first round; CBS’s Jerry Palm had the Cougars No. 9 in the first round against St. Louis.

The Cougars began the week with a No. 21 NET ranking by the NCAA, No. 17 by Pomeroy and 29th by USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin. In a compilation of bracketologists, the Cougars are as low as No. 3 and as high as a 10. The average seed is 7.8.

Three biggest factors on how deep BYU can run in March?

1. Depth. 

2. Size. 

3. Alex Barcello.