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BYU Hoops Mailbag: How would BYU basketball fare in an expanded Big 12?

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VTF’s resident basketball guru answers your questions about Big 12 expansion and the most hotly anticipated season in BYU history.

NCAA Basketball: NIT-Semifinals-Valparaiso vs BYU Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the middle of the summer and there’s virtually nothing going on in the BYU sports world (unless you're really invested in track and field, that is.) So this seemed like as good a time as any to take a minute and look forward to next basketball season — perhaps the most hotly anticipated in school history, now less than five months away after literally years of waiting — by answering some questions from the Vanquish The Foe community.

These are actual questions from actual readers. Let’s get started...

“How would BYU measure up against Big 12 teams and where would they end up in the conference standings (top, upper, middle, lower)?” — Justin

“BYU to Big 12 is all the rave right now. Assuming BYU gets in, how competitive will the Cougars be in, say, three years?” — Frankie

Let’s begin here, since we got two very similar questions on this topic and it seems to be the thing on many BYU fans’ minds throughout the summer doldrums.

The Big 12 hoopla often (rightfully) focuses on what expansion might mean for football. That's where the eyeballs are and, consequentially, where the money is. But it’s equally interesting for those interested in BYU’s second-highest revenue-producing sport to wonder what such a move might mean for the hardwood.

There are a couple ways to look at this. First, let’s look backwards for some context: How does BYU historically stack up against Big 12?

To be objective about this, I decided to analyze KenPom rankings for each Big 12 team (plus, for the purposes of this exercise, the two most likely expansion candidates, BYU and Cincinnati) over each of the last 10 seasons. What I found is that the Cougars’ fit is heavily dependent on which years you choose to evaluate.

For example, if you’re looking at the last 10 seasons, BYU fares exceptionally well — coming in fourth, behind only Kansas, Texas and West Virginia. This ranking is heavily influenced by the team’s success in the Jimmer Fredette era from 2009 to 2011.

However, if you narrow the lens and consider only the Cougars’ performance in the last three or five seasons, the picture is less rosy. In both scenarios, BYU ranks as the eighth best team in an expanded Big 12 — solidly in the bottom half, but not quite in the doldrums of the Kansas States, Texas Techs and TCUs of the world either.

So if that’s the past, what does it mean moving forward (in a hypothetical expansion scenario, of course)? Should BYU fans expect future performance to progress toward the 10-year mean, or to continue the middling trend of the last five years?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but I’d skew more toward the former. Dave Rose has significantly more talent in the pipeline right now than at any other point in the program’s history — including the Jimmer era. While the last five years have been a relatively average stretch for the team, we can expect that performance to tick up considerably in the coming years. Will it be as good as the Jimmer years, where the Cougars made three straight KenPom Top 25 appearances? Maybe, maybe not. That depends on a lot of factors. But it’s certainly possible. And at the very least, we’re probably more likely to see something closer to that level of play than to what we’ve experienced over the last few seasons.

Bottom line: Even if they don’t quite reach the heights of the Jimmer days, a reasonable return to form would likely place BYU solidly in the top half of an expanded Big 12 Conference, even as the league continues to strengthen as a basketball power, for at least the next five years or so. Anything past that is completely dependent on the coaching staff’s ability to continue to stock the roster with top-level talent. But they should be pretty well set for the foreseeable future.

“How good does this team need to be defensively and how good can they be defensively? Who are the lockdown defenders (if any)?” — Thatcher

It might not seem like it, but BYU is actually making strides on the defensive end of the floor. They certainly weren't a good defensive team in 2015-16, but they also weren’t completely abhorrent either. According to KenPom’s Adjusted Defensive Efficiency metric, the Cougars improved from being the country’s 160th best defense in 2014-15 to being the 77th best defense this past season. So they’re moving in a positive direction, but there’s still work to do — especially if this group of players has aspirations of doing something serious at the national level.

It should be no surprise that some of BYU’s most successful seasons came when they had their best defensive performances. As mentioned above, the team peaked in the KenPom rankings with a fantastic run of Top 25 finishes from 2009 to 2011. During that span, the Cougars finished in (or on the cusp of) the Top 50 in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in each season — 39th in 2009, 51st in 2010 and 38th in 2011.

(Fun fact: BYU’s best defensive team in the Rose era? The 2008 squad, which finished ranked 11th nationally.)

So it’s possible for BYU to play good defense with the caliber of talent they’re capable of recruiting. They’ve done it in the past, and they’ll likely need to return to that level again if they want to make some noise in March. The Cougars don’t need to necessarily be a Top 10 defensive team, not if they continue to be a high-powered offensive juggernaut. But they do need to do more than simply gamble on outscoring their opponents in a shootout every night — and a Top 50-level defense would seem to do the trick in that regard.

The good news is, at least from what we know now, the new blood seems committed to defending better. Nick Emery is their unquestioned leader, and he proved to be an absolute bulldog on the perimeter in his freshman season. He’ll likely be the team’s best defender in 2016-17. Eric Mika showed he can be effective in the post prior to his mission, although he’ll need to add strength and avoid fouls to take the next step. And several other young players — Elijah Bryant, Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws, to name a few — at least have the physical tools to become solid team defenders, if not suffocating individual stoppers.

So this team should be better on defense. The raw ability is there, and assistant coach Quincy Lewis will undoubtedly do everything he can to get them to buy into his system, build good habits and commit to a defensive mindset. We’ll see what kind of results it produces, but a Top 50ish finish isn’t out of the question for this young squad.

"Just wanted to get your view on the possibility of TJ, Nick and Elijah all starting together and how you think that will go. From all I've heard Elijah is projected to be the starting PG. Do you see him guarding the 3's on defense?” — Anonymous

At this point, there really aren’t many other options. Dave Rose has always preferred a guard-heavy lineup, and with only four scholarship guards now on the roster (and no true wings) it’s likely that Nick Emery, TJ Haws and Elijah Bryant will all start on the perimeter and play a ton of minutes. Cougar fans should pray and fast daily that none of them gets hurt.

Admittedly, this is an awfully big load to put on the shoulders of a couple freshmen and sophomores, but that’s kind of where BYU is this year. Everyone is young, but everyone is also tremendously talented. There will be growing pains, but they will hopefully come in the service of long-term payoff. The guard situation should be no different — although it would be highly preferable to add more depth before the fall.

In regards to who is the “point guard,” I’m not sure there’s a real answer to that. I think all three players will handle the ball a ton. Given Rose’s preference for an up-tempo attack, I think you’ll see BYU attempting to quickly outlet to the first available of any of those three guards and then turn and run immediately. Each of them is certainly more than capable of pushing the pace and either creating for themselves or for teammates, so this approach should leverage the roster’s strengths nicely.

If this configuration starts to break down anywhere, it’s on defense. In a three-guard lineup with Emery and Haws, Bryant will likely be tasked with guarding the opposing team’s small forward. He’s not a perfect fit for that role, and he’ll likely be overmatched size-wise by more than a few, but he should do reasonably well against WCC competition. But you can expect to see a fair share of zone looks, particularly when the matchups on the wings don’t look favorable to BYU’s smaller guard line.

“How long do you think it will take all the returning basketball players to be in shape? Would it be different for Mika vs. Haws?” — Joe

It’ll be on an ongoing process throughout the season. I don’t know if the length of time depends so much on the position of the player, but more so on the dedication of the individual — and that’s impossible to know right now.

I do think that players who returned home earlier from their missions (such as Haws and Mika) will have an advantage and potentially could be back to playing shape sooner, just by function of having more time to work with prior to the start of fall camp. At the same time, players who returned later (like Payton Dastrup) may find themselves playing a bit of catchup and extending their readjustment period deeper into the season.

“Should they change their offensive philosophy? Would that help them go beyond the Sweet 16?” — Aaron

BYU has been a Top 50 team in KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency in virtually every season since 2008 (with 2012 being the notable outlier). They also haven't finished outside the Top 15 nationally in average points scored per game since 2008, and they've finished in the Top 10 in five of the seven years during that span. They are undoubtedly one of the most consistently prolific offensive teams in the country.

So no, I do not think it would be particularly helpful to radically change what they’re doing.

“Over/under on the number of times ‘Lone Peak Three’ will be uttered? Personally, I think it does a huge disservice to the rest of the team.” — Taylor

I see the point, but I’m staunchly pro-“Lone Peak Three," if only because I was a very early adopter. It’s a fun nickname that highlights a unique story — having three high school teammates playing together at the Division I level is incredibly rare and notable. I think that’s a good thing, on net.

However, at the same time, I do think it’s important to emphasize that the “Lone Peak Three” are not the team. They can’t succeed on their own. They’re going to sink or swim based on the contributions of other incredibly talented players who do not hail from Alpine, Utah — like Bryant, Dastrup and Yoeli Childs.

I think there’s a way to avoid giving short-shrift to the wealth of non-Lone Peak talent on the roster, while still doing justice to a cool story. Fans and media just need to be cognizant of the dynamic.

“Who ends up transferring from this team that we didn't think would transfer? Who's this year's Jake Toolson?” — Ryan

Um, does Jordan Chatman count? I’m going to stick with Jordan Chatman and call myself a genius.

But in all reality, I think you’re more likely to see transfers among the players who will be returning from missions next summer. If I had to pick one, I’d go with either Luke Worthington or Ryan Andrus (or both). Those guys are coming back to a completely different team than the one they left two years ago — and the roster composition is entirely inverted. Both players grabbed significant playing time in years past because of a paucity of options down low, but that’s no longer the case. If anything, the Cougars now have more big men than they know what to do with (and, weirdly, not enough guard depth), so the competition for minutes in the post will be incredibly stiff. Guys like Worthington and Andrus may opt to simply look for greener pastures rather than duking it out in the mud.

"Will the Cougs make the tourney in 2017? Will they win a tourney game in 2018? Can they make it to the Sweet 16 in 2019? Will the 2019 team be better than the 2011 team?” — Scott

Lighting round! Yes. Yes. Yes! Um, maybe? It’s certainly a high bar, but we’ll see...

“Which player would win right now in an exclusively BYU 2016-2017 street brawl? Will the answer be different at the season's end?” — Scott

The answer to any brawl-related question is always Bronson Kaufusi. I don’t care that he doesn’t play basketball or even go to BYU anymore. He always wins, even when he’s not present. Kelly Olynyk knows. And he may never forget.

If you’d like to have your question included in our next Hoops Mailbag, feel free to send an email to vtfhoops@gmail.com or fire off a tweet to @PostJimmer.