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BYU Basketball limps into crucial stretch with more questions than answers

As injuries and slumps continue to nag the Cougars, resume-defining games with top teams loom.

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at Brigham Young Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

You can be sure that today’s date has been circled on calendars hanging deep in the recesses of the Marriott Center for quite some time now: December 3. USC. Staples Center.

The Saturday tilt with the Trojans is the first in a crucial stretch of nonconference games for the BYU men’s basketball team — including upcoming match-ups with Colorado in Provo and Illinois in Chicago. For a perennial bubble team from a relatively weak conference that often relies on a few key nonconference wins to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume come March, it’s imperative that the Cougars make the most of these types of opportunities to set themselves up for success down the road.

Unfortunately, BYU isn’t exactly coming into this challenge with much in the way of momentum. The Cougars are limping into Los Angeles — both literally and figuratively — coming off a rough three-game span that saw them drop a tight game to a tough Valparaiso team, get thoroughly embarrassed on their home floor by an inferior Utah Valley unit and somewhat regroup for a relatively uninspiring win over a utterly “meh” Utah State squad. For many fans who spent years pining for the day when this group of players would finally see the floor together, this level of early adversity has been dispiriting, leaving more questions than answers.

It’s tough to put a finger on just one place where the Cougars have jumped the rails. The truth is much more complicated and has a couple plausible explanations — all of which can be true simultaneously.

Injuries

Many a potentially great team has been felled by the fatal bite of the injury bug, and BYU has proven they’re not immune thus far. The Cougars have endured a raft of injuries big and small in the first month of the season, which has disrupted any potential chemistry and cohesion that the team might have achieved during its summer workouts.

Elijah Bryant’s meniscus injury has perhaps been the biggest trouble spot. The Elon transfer was expected to be a significant contributor — and maybe even the best player on the team, if practice reports were any indication — but he’s been severely limited. Lingering knee pain has kept Bryant out of action for two consecutive games now, and even when he was on the floor, he was so clearly out of sync that his effectiveness was greatly diminished. It’s natural for a player to struggle in returning from injury (both mentally and physically), but Bryant’s slow recovery has proven to be a major blow to BYU’s depth on an already shallow guard line.

While the Cougars’ depth down low is considerably better than on the perimeter, the potential loss of Kyle Davis to an unspecified knee injury for an extended period of time would still be very difficult to absorb. A vocal contingent of BYU fans love to hate on Davis, but he’s actually been quite effective overall to start the season. Losing his 10 points and 5 rebounds per game — not to mention five additional fouls for an infraction-prone frontline — is not something that can be easily replaced. Yes, Yoeli Childs is talented and will step into the vacated starting spot, but he’s also incredibly inexperienced and may not be prepared to consistently produce at Davis’ level. In fact, he has yet to score in double-figures in a single game this season — and those points will need to come from somewhere. Combine all of this with the potential loss of one of the team’s only senior leaders, and it shouldn’t be hard to see that Davis will be missed if he does, indeed, miss significant time.

Injuries are part of the game, but they sure make it more difficult for a team to live up to its potential — especially when they hit core players.

Slumps

While some key Cougars aren’t even on the floor, the ones who are seem to be struggling with problems of their own.

After a brilliant start to the season, TJ Haws seems to be mired in a difficult slump. He’s hit only 3 of his last 18 shots — that’s only 17 percent, a far cry from the efficient scorer he aspires to be. To be sure, some of TJ’s shot selection could be questioned, but many of the looks he’s getting a quality opportunities. The ball just isn’t going in the basket right now, and that can be frustrating for a young player — causing them to press even more to generate offense, leading to even more diminished results. BYU needs TJ to score, so he cannot and should not stop shooting. But the sooner he can find his stroke again, the better off the Cougars will be.

He’s not as crucial a cog, but freshman 3-point specialist Colby Leifson has been even colder than Haws. Added to the roster late to provide some additional perimeter punch, Leifson has managed to connect on only 22 percent of his long-range attempts in the five games where he’s seen action. In my experience, it’s never a great sign when you’re only successfully performing your single biggest skill set less than a quarter of the time.

Even the top guys who have been seemingly dragging the Cougars into contention in recent games haven’t been particularly efficient. Nick Emery combusted against Utah Valley, scoring a career-high 37 points — but even with that scoring explosion included, he’s still shooting an inefficient 38 percent over BYU’s last four contests. And Eric Mika, so dominant in the early-going, has struggled to stay on the floor with foul trouble. He’s still borderline unstoppable when he can play freely, but fear of picking up additional fouls has sometime caused him to play more tentatively, which can blunt his effectiveness — particularly in second halves.

All in all, nobody — aside from maybe Davin Guinn — has really found a good rhythm of late. Coach Dave Rose will need at least a few of his main guns to find a full chamber posthaste if BYU is going to bring home a couple quality wins in the next two weeks.

Defense

Another year, another round of agonizing over the Cougars’ defensive deficiencies. After finding a way to give up 114 points to Utah Valley (an extraordinarily depressing accomplishment, by any metric), it seemed like we might have finally found the basement of how bad BYU’s defense could be.

The faces may be new, but the problems shouldn’t be unfamiliar. More than anything, it’s a matter of focus and fundamentals. Some say that BYU can’t play good defense because they don’t have the athletes to do so, but that feels more like a convenient crutch than a real reason. In a world where Wisconsin can consistently produce one of the stingiest defenses in the country with (gasp!) a bunch of white boys, there’s no reason why one of the most athletic teams in BYU history can’t be at least passable defensive team.

No, the problem is not with ability. It’s with consistent effort, sustained focus and, to some extent, a lack of accountability. Too often, BYU players can be seen standing straight up, stiff-legged, on defense — not with their knees bent, ready to rotate quickly as the situation demands. And the Cougars’ closeouts on shooters are often nothing short of disastrous. Players lunge wildly at shooters like intoxicated wildebeests staggering to their death, allowing open driving lanes that result in easy layups or simple kickouts to even more open shooters.

Throw in the BYU bigs’ persistent foul problems, and that’s not exactly a recipe for defensive success. Rose is an offensive coach — that’s his modus operandi, and that’s fine. He’s had a lot of success. But if the Cougars continue to give up 114 points to opponents (WAC opponents, no less), it won’t matter how many points they score. It’s high time for Rose and company to re-emphasize defense for this team — and hold players accountable when they fail to guard their yard.

There were some promising signs of progress against Utah State, but more is needed. If you think the Utah Valley performance was bad, imagine what the Trojans and the other formidable opponents on the horizon might be able to do to the Cougars if they don’t tighten up and get back on track on both sides of the ball.

If past years are any indication, BYU’s postseason resume could be effectively made or broken in the next two weeks. If the Cougars are going to be dancing come March, they’ve got some questions to answer — and they’ll need to answer them fast.