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After Gonzaga win, BYU basketball gives doubting fans plenty of reason for hope

If you gave up on the young Cougars already, you abandoned ship way too soon.

NCAA Basketball: Brigham Young at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

BYU Cougars fans will not soon forget their basketball team’s stunning win over top-ranked and undefeated Gonzaga in hostile territory on Saturday evening.

The upset victory has seemed to instill a renewed sense of energy into a fanbase that had grown increasingly despondent over what most considered to be a disappointing season. Whereas many were bitterly complaining about the state of the program and the job security of coach Dave Rose even hours before the final buzzer sounded in Spokane, you won’t find much in the way of complaining now following what some national observers have deemed the single best win by any team in college basketball this season.

Winning has a funny way of healing all wounds. It’s just a shame that it had to come to this to cure people’s BYU blues.

Look, I don’t think anyone would disagree with the argument that this Cougar team hasn’t exactly lived up to preseason expectations. That being said, those preseason expectations — with fanciful visions of immediate deep tournament runs dancing in our heads — were likely unrealistic to begin with. After all, this is a overwhelmingly young and incredibly inexperienced roster — one that became even more so with the loss of its only two seniors, Kyle Davis and LJ Rose, to serious injuries.

Experience matters in college basketball, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Some seem to be under the impression that successful teams disproportionately comprised of underclassmen are commonplace. In fact, they’re the exception to the rule.

Just because Kentucky went 38-2 and won the 2012 national championship with an eight-man rotation that featured six underclassmen, it doesn’t mean that happens often. In fact, it really only happens when you just so happen to six future NBA draft picks on your roster — including the top two players taken overall, and two more who were taken in the first round. That type of situation is so rare that it’s really only ever happened once, but it seems to color fans’ perceptions of what’s reasonable to expect of other teams whose talent levels pale in comparison.

For a more reasonable example of how much experience matters, let’s look at the four squads that qualified for last year’s Final Four. All four teams — Villanova, North Carolina, Syracuse and Oklahoma — had at least five juniors or seniors in their eight-man rotation. Sure, they had some good underclassmen too, but the experienced hands played the heaviest minutes and took the responsibility of driving their respective teams to victory.

This is much more emblematic of how college basketball actually works: When you’ve got talented, experienced players, you’re more likely to be more successful. When you’ve got talented, inexperienced players, you’re likely to get some uneven performances.

By comparison, with Davis and Rose sidelined, BYU has seven underclassmen in its current eight-man rotation, including several players who haven’t seriously touched a basketball in two years due to missionary service — the polar opposite of what’s normally required for significant success. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Cougars’ outcomes have been up-and-down as a result. As talented as this group of players is — and they are very talented — they simply haven’t been together long enough or played enough games at this level to have reliably figured out what they’re doing.

But as Saturday’s instant classic in Spokane showed, they’re starting to figure it out in a big way — and it’s truly exciting to see. After 31 games together, it appears that things are finally starting to come together for the young Cougars.

Eric Mika has been a dominant force all season, but he’s looking even more comfortable as he’s learned to recognize double-teams faster and move the ball more freely. He burned the Bulldogs all night, and the nation’s top team never found an answer.

Elijah Bryant appears to have finally completed the long journey back from knee surgery, and increasingly looks like the all-around stud many fans heard about dominating practices as a redshirt last season. His ability to get into the lane and finish strong through contact brings a different (and sorely needed) dimension to this BYU squad. It’s hard not to wonder what might have been if Bryant had been able to stay healthy all season.

And while the Cougars’ guard tandem of TJ Haws and Nick Emery have both struggled with hot-and-cold seasons, each has risen to the occasion in big moments in recent weeks — none bigger than against Gonzaga. Haws dropped three straight deep bombs to whittle down the Zags’ early lead before halftime, while Emery struggled all night, only to connect on back-to-back 3-pointers at a crucial juncture in the second half where his team desperately needed a spark from their leader.

So things are starting to come together. If nothing else, the triumph at The Kennel showed the incredible promise that has always been buried at the heart of this group of players. Sure, it’s been a bit of a painful process uncovering it (and that process may not yet be over), but the wait will be more than worth it. Some may have started to doubt it, but there’s likely to be many more nights like Saturday in the Cougars’ future.

Hopefully nobody broke their leg leaping from the bandwagon so soon — because you’re welcome to jump back on now and enjoy the ride.