If you have been following BYU Cougars basketball, you already knew there was going to be a lack of front-court help on this year's BYU men's basketball squad. The hope was that a year after only having three players over 6-9, this year's squad would receive help as they have 5 players over said height.
The big question of who would replace Eric Mika's offensive production seemed to be answered when 6-6 bruiser Jamaal Aytes transferred to BYU from UNLV. Aytes is a wide body that creates contact and finishes well around the rim. After watching him abuse the tall, skinny posts this summer, I thought this was an accurate assumption and the Cougars would have to find something until he was eligible in mid-December. This expectation came crashing down when it was announced Jamaal would miss the season due to an ankle injury.
Another major injury occurred in the warm ups of the Utah game when senior 6-11 forward Nate Austin felt something pop in his hamstring. I have always liked Nate Austin, he has an amazing motor, great length, and has really learned to maximize his role. This is crucial to any team having success, role players knowing their jobs and performing them. Nate is a great help side defender, excellent rebounder, and also plays very good position defense which is something that often gets overlooked. When he returns, it would be nice if he looked to score, or at least shoot lay ups a little more. Multiple times when he was playing, he would catch the ball in the lane and immediately look to kick it back outside. I know he is not a scorer, but even scoring a few layups on those catches would start to open up better looks for the shooters outside.
So, the list of available posts is now Luke Worthington, who has started every game this season, Corbin Kaufusi, who is seeing his minutes start to climb, Isaac Neilson, who was a starter and now doesn't see much time, Josh Sharp, hyper athletic but undersized and extremely limited athletically, and Ryan Andrus, a freshman who is not ready to play big minutes.
Luke Worthington is really just a bigger, slower, and more physical version of Nate Austin. A limited offensive player who plays hard all the time and is looking to run the offense while doing his job. Now there is nothing wrong with that. I personally would love to have one or two players like this on every team. But, you want these players to be complimentary players, not having to carry a load for your team. Luke is very limited offensively, he only has one move, and will go to it even if the easy layup is available by going opposite of the move, it is a jump hook over the left shoulder if you were wondering. He is slow and prone to picking up fouls, which is why he cannot be counted on to carry a significant load down the stretch.
Corbin Kaufusi, the man of many dunks and massive hype coming into the season, is the next option. Corbin, as has been documented, was supposed to play football at BYU, then grew a bunch on his mission, and decided to play basketball instead. He also was hurt during camp and it really hurt his progression. With the Austin injury, he has seen his role expand and is probably playing the most of all the big guys. There is no coincidence to this. He is an athletic marvel for a guy who is 6-10 and 245. He is very instinctual and is learning the finer touches of the game, but they seem to click much more often than they did at the beginning of the season. It seems that he is good for a couple blocks and at least one, if not two, dunks off a pick and roll a game now. If he is to continue his progression, he needs to learn how to shoot a jump hook with his back to the basket. But continue to look for Corbin to gain minutes and confidence as the conference schedule rolls along.
I'm going to admit that I fell in love with the idea of a 6-11 guy who could shoot jumpers, especially after I saw him make so many this summer. Alas, that has not been consistent enough to keep Isaac Neilson on the floor this season. It seems that Isaac is due for one completely silly play each game. Fouling a jump shooter with the shot clock expiring against UMass, or in the same game, pulling a rebound and throwing a pass to nobody. The goal tend on a late game jumper against Portland, I could go on but I don't want to pile it on. Isaac is very skinny, listed at 230 but really looks like 215, he gets pushed around a lot and probably needs some more time to get stronger and develop. Remember that he did score in double digits in the first four out of five games, which helped him get into the starting lineup. Hopefully he regains some of that confidence he showed early and can be relied on later on in conference play.
Andrus and Sharp are just so limited that I think we've seen that Coach Rose is not going to use them much except in blow outs. Therefore they cannot be counted on to provide an impact.
So, now that it's been chronicled what these players do well and struggle with, what is the solution? The four guard lineup is probably here to stay, except against Gonzaga with a healthy Austin. Inserting Anson Winder, who has played very well this season, instead of a struggling big man, has really helped with the slow starts the Cougars were struggling with. It also allows some flexibility defensively as they are now switching almost every screen with the four guards. They have also played more zone which allows them to use their athleticism to get out and run a little more. It has also let us see more young wing players like Frank Bartley IV and Jake Toolson. Toolson probably benefits the most from the four guard lineup as he has gotten more minutes and more shots. Another wing able to play off the bench will do wonders for this team as they head into two games a week until March.
When Austin is back, we will still probably see the four guard lineup, but less often. Hopefully, Kaufusi continues his rise and gives BYU a post they can count on to score some points. I'm not talking 15 points a game,but 6-8 from both Corbin and Nate will do. This will mean that guards can no longer just sit on Haws, Fischer, and Winder, and will have to sag a little to help. This in turn means better looks from said shooters on kick outs as the defense now has to honestly guard the lane. You have to be able to score in the half court and the posts need to help in order to be efficient in this area.
BYU will still run and it will still be a guard oriented offense, but I really hope that someone can step up and solidify the middle for the Cougars.