It’s stunning how far, and how fast, BYU basketball has fallen.
Can the Cougars get back up?
A mere two weeks ago, BYU had a 17-4 record; it was projected as a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament; it was one spot out of the Associated Press Top 25; it was in second place in the West Coast Conference; and it had a NCAA NET ranking of No. 28.
Then came an unforeseen, inexplicable, precipitous collapse.
Right now, after two miserable weeks, the Cougars are in much different place and the season outlook has completely changed.
It started with a last-second loss at Santa Clara, followed by a head-scratching setback to a Pacific team on a seven-game losing streak and a NET ranking above No. 300. Then, last week, BYU suffered back-to-back, double-digit home losses to San Francisco and No. 2 Gonzaga, respectively.
Two weeks ago, the Cougars had never lost consecutive regular season games under coach Mark Pope.
Now, BYU (17-8, 5-5) is projected as a No. 11 seed and one of the last four teams in the tournament; it is in sixth place in the WCC standings — for a program that has never finished lower than third in the conference — and they sit at No. 45 in the NET rankings.
It’s somewhat amazing that BYU, despite this four-game losing streak, is still considered an NCAA Tournament team. That’s a testament to its overall performance during the season. They own a 9-7 record in Quad 1 and Quad 2 games.
So where do the Cougars go from here?
Pope has been talking about his team “reinventing” itself. But time is running out.
BYU has five regular season games remaining before the WCC Tournament in Las Vegas. The Cougars play at Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine — which are in ninth and 10th place in the WCC standings — this weekend, then visit No. 22 Saint Mary’s. They close out the season at home against LMU and Pepperdine.
What gives Pope confidence that his team can finish the season strong and rediscover winning?
“Our belief in each other, which is being challenged ... I think that is the foundation of everything. Our enthusiasm and love for this game is important also,” he said. “That’s what carries you through these moments. And the third thing, is our ability to write our own story. We get to write our own ending to this story. We can’t write the story that happened (Saturday against Gonzaga), it’s already done. We can’t write what happened the last 13 days before tonight, either. But we can write the next seven and the next one. Those three things combined is where we’re living right now.”
Bruised, but not broken
Former BYU star Tyler Haws, the school’s all-time leading scorer, can empathize with what this Cougar team is going through.
Haws remembers during his junior year, in 2013-14, his team lost four consecutive games during the middle of the season, including back-to-back games at LMU and Pepperdine.
“That was a dark, dark time,” remembered Haws, who is now a BYUtv analyst. “There were team meetings and meetings with administration. Neighbors and friends were saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. There’s always next year.’ I was like, ‘What?’ We had 2 ½ months to play. That’s the challenge. Not only are you feeling the pressure, you have everyone else thinking they have the answers. I remember saying, ‘Please don’t think that you care more than I do.’ We were trying to figure this out. I know these players and coaches are feeling that way.”
The Cougars managed to turn things around and they ended up going to the NCAA Tournament in 2014.
Haws said the recent losses to Santa Clara and Pacific were bewildering because the offense generally played well and the defense did not.
“Then the next two games (against USF and Gonzaga), all the bleeding just continued,” Haws said. “Te’Jon (Lucas) went down and then guys were really questioning. When you lose a game, you can really start doubting yourself and not trust the things that gotten you to where you are. There was definitely some doubting and questioning against San Francisco and Gonzaga. They weren’t playing with the type of confidence that they have all year. Do I think it’s broken? No, I don’t. There’s still a lot to play for. But confidence is very fragile right now. They’re in a tough spot.”
Throughout the season, BYU has won games primarily due to its defense and rebounding.
But in recent weeks, the Cougars have slipped in those areas. To compound matters, their offense has been “a little sticky, a little discombobulated, a little lacking trust,” according to Pope, marked by poor shooting and a propensity for turnovers.
The past two weeks, BYU has been outrebounded overall and it is shooting less than 40% from the floor, less than 30% from 3-point range, and less than 70% from the free-throw line. On top of that, the Cougars have 22 more turnovers than assists in those four games.
Former BYU player Mark Durrant, a longtime BYU Radio analyst, offered his suggestions for what the Cougars need to do moving forward.
“I have complete confidence in (BYU’s coaching staff). They’re figuring this out,” Durrant told BYUtv. “They’re not a particularly potent offensive team to begin with. Teams are taking away Alex Barcello. BYU runs that weave, where the post sets a high screen and they switch and double. Their main goal is, Alex Barcello won’t get good looks and won’t beat us. Everybody else, what do you got? Can you beat us? What I’d like to see is BYU take a different approach offensively and try to work from the inside out rather than run the perimeter and try to attack the inside from the perimeter. Try to get Fousseyni (Traore) a lot more touches and work the offense through him. He’s taken a step back but he’s a tremendous player and a good passer. Get the ball in the paint and don’t force it … then kick it back out to the perimeter. That will help Alex. Teams will have to help defensively and collapse and Alex will get some shots. You need to take a new approach. Something needs to change with your offensive schemes because teams know it too well and they’re taking away Alex Barcello.”
Haws said BYU’s coaching staff will make “little tweaks” to the offense that should give the players confidence.
“Pope’s style is controlling the pace and moving the ball from side-to-side. Analytics tell you that you score more points that way. The numbers speak for themselves the last three years,” Haws said. “Their efficiency offensively has been incredible. But I do think there are things in transition that they could push the envelope a little more and put pressure on teams and open up their confidence that way.”
Defensively, BYU has to recapture what it was doing earlier this season.
“This team was a defensive team all year long and that’s what’s gotten them wins,” Durrant said. “Obviously, if you play Gonzaga, you’re going to get beat. But you don’t have to get beat the way BYU got beat. I think BYU could have put in a much better effort defensively and at least put up some resistance. They didn’t do a good job of that. And their rebounding hasn’t been as good. There are things that they’re really good at that they’re not doing right now. … If you address these issues, you can get back to where you need to be.”
Can BYU still get to the NCAA Tournament?
Barcello returned to BYU for one more season in large part to get another shot at the NCAA Tournament. Lucas signed with the Cougars last spring for a similar reason.
But that goal could be slipping away.
Pope acknowledged that his team’s precarious situation concerns him.
“This has really hurt us in terms of the tournament. But our destiny is still in our control. That’s what matters,” he said. “We have taken a bunch of punches the last couple of weeks. We have to stay focused on the fact that everything is still ahead of us.”
Durrant believes that BYU still can find its way into the Big Dance.
“I think absolutely they can. Clearly, it’s going to depend on what happens the next three weeks. If they can take care of business like I think they should against LMU and Pepperdine, they’ll have four wins there. Obviously, you don’t take those for granted at this point. You can lose to anybody in the conference. BYU has proven that. But let’s assume BYU takes care of business there. The big game would be against Saint Mary’s.
“I think they can play with the Gaels. If you win your last five regular season games, one of those being Saint Mary’s, who would likely be second in the conference and will be in the tournament, if you can say you swept that team, that would be a good case to get into the tournament,” Durrant continued. “Now, you have to throw in the (WCC Tournament), if BYU loses Friday or Saturday, that would hurt you obviously. If you get to the semis on Monday, with a five-game winning streak, I think BYU would be in. I think there’s still enough time and enough games to get right again in people’s minds. But all that said, that’s a tall bar because this team is not playing well and things will have to change and they’ll have to find something in order to do that. But there’s a clear path for them to do it and I think they will. Knowing the coaching staff and the players like I do, I fully expect them to figure it out and figure out a way to win those games and get into the tournament. That’s their goal and I think this is a team that can accomplish it.”
“I believe they can get in (the tournament). I’m not counting them out. They’re still in. They’ve had a tough stretch, but if they can show well these last five games and show well in the (WCC) tournament, they’ll get some (consideration) for an NCAA bid,” he said. “Even with their record now, they’ve got some really notable Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins. You don’t know where the chips are going to land at the end of the season. Lots of people are too quick to say the house is on fire. Yes, the pressure’s on but there’s a lot to play for. These players and coaches want it more than anyone could tell them.”
Pope still believes. He’s keeping the faith that this team can rise above the depths of its recent struggles.
“We have total control over our future. That’s a great place to be,” he said. “These guys have all the power in their hands to make this season whatever they want. We can make it one of the greatest comeback stories ever. I love that. That’s our goal.”