A year after falling to their crosstown rivals in embarrassing fashion in the Marriott Center, the BYU Cougars made a triumphant statement Wednesday with an 85-58 drubbing of Utah Valley on the Wolverines’ home floor in front of a sellout crowd.
After last year’s historically bad 114-101 loss to a sweet-shooting UVU squad, many BYU fans feared another defeat was in the offing. But this year’s contest could not have been more different. The Cougars looked like a team possessed — ruthlessly executing on both sides of the ball with precision and focus. As UVU coach Mark Pope remarked to his team at halftime, it felt like BYU had been stewing on the embarrassment of their previous loss for a whole year — and now they were playing like it.
But it wasn’t just that intensity that helped the Cougars turn the tables and triumph. Here are three reasons why this year’s Crosstown Clash turned out much differently:
1. BYU slowed things way down
For years, head coach Dave Rose’s BYU teams have been known for playing at a frenetic pace, consistently landing them among the fastest teams in the nation in terms of tempo. But the arrival of assistant coach Heath Schroyer and a new offensive philosophy more suited to BYU’s personnel has resulted in a more patient and methodical Cougar team than in years past — and nowhere was that more clear than in Orem on Wednesday evening.
In last year’s meeting with the Wolverines, the game was played at a pace of 98 possessions per 40 minutes. That’s insanely fast. Keep in mind, BYU played at the fourth fastest tempo in all of college basketball last season, and their average tempo for the year (adjusted for opponent’s pace) was only 75.6 — so we’re talking about an additional 22 possessions in last year’s UVU game beyond the Cougars’ already astronomically fast normal pace. (For context, 98 possessions is about as many possessions as an average NBA game, but in eight fewer minutes of playing time!)
I suppose none of that should be too surprising. UVU also likes to play fast — they finished last season with the 13th fastest tempo in the country — so it seems to make sense that getting two teams that love to run and gun together would produce a bit of a track meet. The problem, of course, is that BYU has never been particularly well-suited (with its general lack of elite athleticism) to this style of play. Sure, it’s allowed them to score a lot of points by taking a lot of quick shots, but it’s also resulted in them playing a lot of bad defense and leaving themselves exposed against lesser opponents when their shots don’t fall. Hence, Schroyer’s philosophical change.
This year’s contest looked very different. Wednesday’s game was played at a pace of 69 possessions per 40 minutes. That’s nearly 30 fewer possessions than a year ago in Provo. That’s bonkers. But why does it matter? Because it means that BYU was able to successfully control the pace of the game and execute their desired game plan. UVU still wants to play fast, so when BYU was able to slow things down and execute offensively in the halfcourt while also limiting the Wolverines’ own offensive opportunities, it changed the dynamic that worked so much to UVU’s advantage last year and thew a wrench in Pope’s own best-laid plans.
This is what teams like St. Mary’s (one of the slowest, lowest tempo teams in the country) have done so effectively to BYU’s warp-speed attack in recent years. The Cougars just gave the Wolverines a taste of some of that medicine.
2. BYU limited UVU’s 3-point looks
Opponents killed BYU from 3-point range last year. The Cougars were amongst the worst teams in the country (334th) in giving up long-range looks. And while they often lucked out with some opponents missing those open looks, there were certainly many times when a team full of good shooters got hot and buried the boys in blue from beyond the arc.
Last year’s UVU game was one such instance. The Wolverines lit BYU’s perimeter defense on fire and then poured lighter fluid on it, making a Marriott Center-record 18 (eighteen!) 3-pointers on 37 attempts. The Cougars never had any chance to withstand those kinds of pyrotechnics, even while getting a career-high 37 points from Nick Emery.
This year, Schroyer has focused the Cougars on not just defending their opponents’ 3-point shots, but eliminating those looks all together. By closing out aggressively and running opponents off the line so they can’t even take those shots, you remove much of the possibility of a team getting hot and making you pay from deep. BYU has done this to varying levels of success so far this season, but overall, the numbers are there. Opposing teams’ 3-point attempts are way down, with the Cougars currently ranked 65th nationally in fewest attempts allowed.
Again, Wednesday’s UVU game is a perfect microcosm of this early progress. In stark contrast to last year’s barrage, BYU limited the Wolverines to only a single 3-point make on just eight attempts — a far cry from their 18-for-37 performance of a year ago. Effectively neutralizing a huge part of UVU’s preferred attack turned the Wolverines into a stagnant, sputtering mess with no flow (only 6 assists on 20 made field goals), and thus, limited opportunities to score points and keep pace.
3. BYU moved the ball and buried open looks
Of course, it also helped that BYU made some long-balls of their own. The Cougars have struggled to connect consistently from deep early in the season, but not on Wednesday. The Cougars converted 12 treys on 26 attempts, good for a 46.2 percent conversion rate — far above their season average of 35.9 percent. And it wasn’t all relying on a select few shooters: six different BYU players splashed home multiple 3-pointers, showing a newfound balance that Cougar fans should hope continues.
To be sure, sometimes the shots just go in and other times they don’t. But it’s also worth noting that BYU’s offense looked as fluid against the Wolverines as it has at any point this season. Crisp and continuous ball movement opened up a host of good looks, both inside and out, and allowed the Cougars to assist on 25 of their 30 made baskets, or 83 percent.
Compare that to last year’s performance against UVU, where they assisted on only 21 of 37 made baskets (57 percent) and you can begin to see the positive effect that sharing the ball can have on a basketball team. The Cougars should certainly be striving for more of the same moving forward.