If you were to ask the coaches, players and fans of the BYU men’s basketball team about how the season has transpired to date, I think virtually all of them would admit that things haven’t quite gone as they’d hoped or expected.
With six players formerly ranked in the Top 100 of their respective high school classes finally coming together in Provo for the first time, expectations for this 2016-17 Cougar team were particularly high. And while those inside the program likely had somewhat more measured, reasonable ideas about what they might be able to accomplish with such a young squad, many supporters were undoubtedly swept up in speculation about dominant performances and deep NCAA Tournament runs.
Things started promisingly enough, with a big opening night victory over a veteran Princeton team that many expected to be the class of the Ivy League. That win sent the hype machine into overdrive, and the beast was further fed by a handful of big wins over bad foes. When the Cougars suited up for the championship game of the MGM Grand Main Event at 4-0, the anticipation of things to come had reached a fever pitch not seen since the days of Jimmer Fredette.
And that’s when things started to fall apart.
BYU fell in that Vegas game to a very solid Valparaiso team in a tightly contested rematch of last year’s NIT semifinals. But while the Crusaders came away with the three-point win, it didn’t feel like the Cougars were overmatched. In fact, even with Eric Mika spending most of the night in foul trouble, only a few poorly timed miscues separated them from victory and a 5-0 record.
So all good, right? In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a young team learning from a hard-fought loss to a very respectable opponent.
That is, unless that same team goes out in their next game and gives up 114 points and takes an embarrassing loss at home to a WAC school that’s been playing Division I basketball for barely a decade. Oh, and it’s also their crosstown little brother, no less.
Of course, that’s exactly what BYU did.
Utah Valley so thoroughly outclassed the Cougars in virtually every aspect of the game on that fateful night, you could almost see the players’ confidence unraveling before your eyes. The voices of doubt and frustration in their respective heads might as well have been blasted from the Marriott Center PA system. It was painful to watch on so many levels.
And honestly, the Cougars haven’t looked good since. Sure, they sandwiched a defeat to a good USC team between two wins over in-state foes, but none of the performances were especially inspiring. The Utah State and Weber State wins were uncomfortably narrow, despite BYU’s sizable advantage in both talent and size over both opponents. And even though USC missed 16 of their first 17 shots, BYU couldn’t do much better and failed to build a sizable lead when they had the chance — and when the Trojans finally did find their groove, they looked like they were playing on a different planet than the struggling, disjointed Cougars.
So obviously this is disappointing, particularly the recent level of performance. But what does this all mean?
Well, first of all, it means that BYU isn’t quite as good as some thought they were — and that really shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is a team with nine new faces, most of whom have never played together in a game setting before a few weeks ago. It’s also a team that’s relying heavily on the contributions of freshmen and recently returned missionaries (and sometimes both at the same time!) who had either never stepped on a Division I floor at all or hadn’t touched a basketball in a meaningful way in two years. There were bound to be growing pains. It was always going to be ugly at times. That’s what we’re seeing. It’s not fun, but if you’re thinking about things rationally, this is what often happens with young teams. So maybe it’s time pump the breaks a bit on the crazy expectations.
That being said, what does this run of rough results mean for the Cougars’ chances of returning to the Big Dance this year? That’s where the rubber really meets the road. Even if you weren’t a Sweet 16-or-bust person before the season, you probably thought that, even with their inexperience, BYU’s inherent talent would surely propel them back to the NCAA tournament.
But as of today, the boys in blue find themselves in a tough spot. Because of the lack of depth in the West Coast Conference, BYU has always relied on picking up quality nonconference wins to bolster their resume for an at-large bid. If they don’t get enough of those “signature wins,” it has historically been very difficult (but not impossible) for the Cougars to hear their name called in March. That’s why coach Dave Rose has traditionally scheduled aggressively, to create those kinds of opportunities — and that includes this year.
But right now, BYU has exactly zero of the high-caliber wins it needs to feel comfortable about its positioning. The Cougars are sitting at a paltry No. 191 in the RPI rankings as of this writing, and they’re currently 0-3 against teams in the Top 100. Their best win is over Princeton, who currently comes in at a lukewarm No. 168.
It’s not very exciting stuff, but that’s not necessarily a dealbreaker in and of itself. The even bigger problem is that the Cougars just have so few opportunities left to dramatically improve their resume and send a message to the Selection Committee that they’re for real. BYU has only six remaining games against teams that have a realistic chance of winding up in the RPI Top 100: Colorado on Saturday (No. 106), Illinois next week (No. 87), and two apiece with Gonzaga (No. 8) and Saint Mary’s (No. 4) in conference play. That’s not a lot of runway to work with — and because of that, every one of these games now starts to matter even more.
I don’t want to overstate this. BYU’s season is not over. It’s December. There’s plenty of time left — and as we saw in Saint Mary’s home loss to UT-Arlington on Thursday, other teams will surely turn in their own share of embarrassing performances. Anyone who’s writing the Cougars off now, with so much basketball left to be played, is not to be taken seriously. Rose’s men have been in more precarious positions than this one and still somehow found themselves dancing when the band started to play.
So all hope is not lost. Far from it. But even so, now would be a really, really good time for BYU to start figuring some things out and notching a few wins — and that begins with Saturday’s matchup with the Buffaloes. This is a home game against a borderline Top 100 team. This is a game that the Cougars should win. In fact, they’re favored to do so by the major stats-based prognosticators. It’s games like these that can help them to start rebuilding their collective confidence while also beginning to assemble that all-important at-large resume — or, if they flounder yet again, that can threaten to send them into an even more dire tailspin and place their tournament hopes directly behind the 8-ball.
In other words, there aren’t really any “must-win” games in December, not with three months of basketball left to play. But BYU’s game with Colorado is about as close to a make-or-break game as you’re likely to get at this juncture, and how the Cougars perform on Saturday is going to say quite a bit about how we can expect the rest of this season to play out — for better or for worse.