With Tuesday’s announcement that sophomore guard Elijah Bryant has suffered a season-ending knee injury, BYU will begin their time in the National Invitation Tournament on Wednesday evening with very little to gain — in either the short or long term.
Losing Bryant, who had turned a corner late in the season and become one of the most productive players in the West Coast Conference, virtually ensures that the Cougars won’t be making their third deep run to Madison Square Garden. BYU was already stretched painfully thin before Bryant went down, and now even more burden will be placed on the shoulders of Eric Mika, Nick Emery and TJ Haws — with precious little help to carry the load.
Bryant served as a dynamic slasher with the ability to use his quickness to get into the lane and his size and strength to finish through contact — a key role that no one else on the roster can adequately fill. His presence made defenses think twice about extending too far on BYU’s perimeter threats, instead opting to stay closer to home to help stop Bryant’s penetration and opening up clean looks for Emery and Haws.
That now won’t be the case in the NIT, meaning that — unless something changes dramatically overnight — BYU’s stay in the second-tier tournament will likely be a relatively brief one.
But there’s more at stake here than just some short-term success in a competition whose sole function is to determine the 69th best basketball team in America. Contrary to what our own Keith Shirts has written here recently, there is potential for BYU to get some long-term value out of their NIT experience. Or at least there was before Tuesday.
It’s already been well established that this Cougar team is very inexperienced. And while, as Keith points out, there’s limited historic correlation between NIT success and a team’s ability to qualify for the NCAA tournament the following year, these postseason games could have served as additional opportunities for a young team to get some reps together that could pay dividends down the road.
That seemed to be the idea for BYU’s coaching staff as well. Assistant coach Quincy Lewis told ESPN 960’s Ben Criddle as much on Tuesday, saying that the team viewed the NIT as “the beginning of next year.”
Of course, that all changes quite a bit with Bryant on the bench in street clothes. One of the primary problems for BYU this season was a persistent lack of continuity in personnel, due to a seemingly never-ending string of injuries to key players like Bryant, Kyle Davis, LJ Rose and Yoeli Childs. The young Cougars never seemed to be able to get all their guys on the floor at the same time for long enough to figure out how to play together.
The NIT theoretically offered an opportunity to correct that and jumpstart the process for next season. Even though key seniors like Davis and Rose remain injured, all of the key pieces that will return next season were finally healthy at the same time and ready to take advantage of some quality minutes learning how to peacefully and productively coexist in a postseason atmosphere. It was a genuinely good opportunity to make some progress and end a generally disappointing season on an optimistic, forward-looking note.
That won’t happen now. Sure, the remaining guys like Mika, Emery, Haws and Childs will get some more reps, but having Bryant on the sideline pushes the metaphorical pause button on their development as a cohesive unit yet again. While next year’s Cougars figure to benefit from individual improvement as players get one year more experienced and more refined, BYU won’t truly be able to make the leap until they discover how to tune their entire machine in a way that truly maximizes all the impressive talents on hand — and that’s not going to happen with one of the key cogs sitting on the bench.
There’s no doubt that the injury bug bit BYU hard this year — perhaps harder than any season in recent memory. Cougar fans have felt how painful that bite can be. It’s already devoured many of the faithful’s high hopes for a season marked by performances of historic proportions and deep tournament runs. And now, with Bryant’s injury rendering the postseason as a largely pointless exhibition, the bug has decided to help itself to one more snack of sweet, sweet suffering.
Let us pray it’s not interested in dessert.