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BYU basketball: Cougars must stay true to their strengths on the road against #19 Saint Mary’s College

The Cougars need to play a chippy, grind-it-out game. It’s what they are best at.

NCAA Basketball: Texas-Arlington at St. Mary's Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Cougars have an identity problem. Similar to Alexis from The Bachelor who was wearing a shark outfit, but insisted that she was a dolphin. BYU basketball’s issue is almost as absurd.

The Cougars want to play hoops like the Golden State Warriors - fast and free wheeling. The Y insist on trying to play this way. The Cougars play with the 3rd fastest pace of play in all of college hoops. While Dave Rose’s squad certainly gets up and down the floor — they always have — this season it isn’t who they are. It isn’t their strength. They aren’t the flashy Golden State Warriors. They are the grind house Memphis Grizzlies.

Led by Eric Mika, the 2016-17 Cougars are at their best when they physically grind down their opponent by slowing the tempo and punishing teams with their half court offense.

When BYU plays half court offense, they average 0.939 points per possession. 55th nationally. What helps make BYU’s half court offense is their ability to draw fouls. The Cougars get to the free throw line a punishing 16.5% of their half court possessions! This doesn’t even add in the non-shooting not in the bonus fouls the Cougars sustain. Depth is a problem for most every team in the country. If BYU plays slower basketball, they are going to force more minutes to be played from opponents bench talent. That’s an advantage for BYU.

BYU is a poor transition team. The Cougars earning 0.922 points per transition possession. That’s 298th out of the 351 Division 1 teams. Among teams in the West Coast Conference, only Pepperdine is worse on the fast break.

The same goes for defense for these Cougars. BYU is far better at defending a half court offense than they are defending a fast break. Against transition, BYU defensively surrenders 1.033 points per possession. Against half court, 0.774 points per possession.

Take a look at the offense to defense points per possession differential. BYU half court offense points per possession minus their defense points per possession is +0.148. For transition, BYU’s differential is -0.111. Dave Rose’s emphasis on fast pace of play actually helps their opponent.

The last game against Loyola Marymount was a great example of the Cougars identity crisis.

In the first half, the Cougars tried to overwhelm the Lions with their pace of play. Throw in a tough start for Eric Mika and the Cougars earned an 18-point deficit. LMU is a superior team to the Cougars in transition scoring 1.013 points per transition possession. LMU is also better at scoring in transition offense than they are in the half court. BYU was playing into LMU’s hands.

In the second half, BYU slowed the pace a bit. Made the game chippy with their physicality. Frustrated Loyola Marymount as they couldn’t get into a rhythm. Beyond that the Lions started fouling the Y. BYU used foul attrition to the maximum. In the 2nd half, BYU took 15 free throws to LMU 0. One LMU starter fouled out. 3 others ended with 4 fouls. This changed the way Loyola Marymount had to defend, which resulted in better looks offensively. Plus, the Cougars are a pretty good free throw shooting team. This formula helped BYU drudge their way to the comeback road victory. They were able to do it by being who they are.

Next up for the Cougars are the 12-1 #19 St. Mary’s Gaels in Moraga.

The Cougars better be ready to ditch any illusion of run and gun and go with the hard hat from the tip off.

Saint Mary’s is lethal in transition, as they are ranked 4th nationally with 1.275 points per possession on a blistering 71.3% adjusted field goal percentage. They are an average team defensively. Transition is a bad world to be in against the Gaels. They have an advantage on the Cougars on both ends of the floor.

Saint Mary’s is lethal in half court offense as well. They are ranked 8th nationally with 1.014 points per possession. So, the Gaels are a load on offense.

BYU has an advantage on St. Mary’s is in their half court defense. The Cougars have been more difficult to score than the Gaels. St. Mary’s force their opponents to score 0.819 points per possession against their half court defense. The Cougars ability to rebound has been a key place for the Y and it will be giant on Thursday night.

St. Mary’s has a issue when it comes to fouls. They don’t draw fouls a much as the Cougars and they are more prone to fouling than BYU has been. The decisions by the team of officials could be crucial. As this is a road game for BYU, it is likely that the whistles won’t be to the Cougars benefit.

If the Cougars are to pull off the upset, it will be due to their effectiveness on the defensive end of the floor. However, St. Mary’s is extremely balanced on offense. It is not slowed down by focusing attention on any one player instead it is a team defensive effort. The system that Randy Bennett runs is the star of the Gaels’ offense. If there is a weak link or poor technique, St. Mary’s will surgically expose it.

The Cougars must work very hard to upset the rhythm. They need to bring the physical play. They need to make every possession a grind. Eric Mika needs to make Saint Mary’s fans hate him the way BYU fans couldn’t stand Brad Waldow.

Despite playing only 2 games against St. Mary’s, Mika has a history with the Gaels. In the first contest at the Marriott Center, Mika was forearmed in the face after the whistle by Gaels journeyman Garrett Jackson.

In the second game in Moraga, Mika famously gave the choke sign at the Gaels fans following their comeback win.

This is precisely what works in a St. Mary’s-BYU game. If the Cougars can chip away at the composure and comfort of the home team, they will have a chance.

If they try to bombard the Gaels with a heavy dose of transition, the Cougars better be lava hot. Otherwise, it could be a long night against a talented bunch of Aussies led by a talented coach with a history of recruiting violations.