In recent years, many fans have bemoaned the fall of BYU Basketball from days when BYU was at the top of the Mountain West Conference. Coach Dave Rose finished his 12th season coaching the Cougars and has now spent 6 seasons in each the Mountain West and West Coast Conferences. Comparing the results from the 2005-2011 seasons (MWC seasons under Rose) and 2011-2017 seasons shows that fears of BYU slipping in recent years are not unfounded.
Mountain West. BYU went 159-45 overall through those 6 seasons with a 78-18 conference record. This is an average record of 26.5-7.5 (13-3 conference). BYU finished as regular season champion 3 times. 2005-2006 (Rose’s first season) was the only year the team finished out of the top 2 and the only year they did not make the NCAA tournament. The Cougars compiled a 3-5 record in the NCAA tournament over that time, reaching the Sweet Sixteen for the 3rd best finish in school history. By any reasonable standard for BYU, this 6-year stretch was very successful.
West Coast. In 2011, BYU moved to the West Coast Conference, and in the 6 seasons there, the Cougars have a 146-66 (73-31) record. This averages out to 24.3-11 (12.2-5.2) each year. The Cougars have finished the regular season 2nd twice and 3rd four times. BYU has made the NCAA tournament 3 times, with a 1-3 record (the only win came in one of BYU’s two trips to the First Four games). The Cougars made the NIT in the other 3 years, reaching the Semifinals twice.
On the surface, it looks like BYU slipped a little since joining the WCC. BYU is losing more games a year (including 2 more per year in conference). BYU has settled for the NIT three times since changing conferences.
Conference and Schedule Comparison
To compare the two conferences, I looked at conference RPI (back to 2011), postseason results, rankings in the final polls, and BYU’s record against Top 25 teams that year.
Looking at the quick snapshot that conference RPI gives, the Mountain West has historically been a slightly better conference and continues to hold a slight edge by that metric. In postseason play, the MWC regularly places more teams than the WCC (usually 3-4 teams vs 2 teams for the WCC), but Gonzaga’s postseason success generally matches or exceeds any team from the MWC. While in the MWC, BYU had a 3-8 record against Top 25 teams, and only played a total of 5 Top 25 opponents in conference. In 6 seasons in the WCC, BYU is 6-18 overall and 6-9 in conference against Top 25 opponents. The number of ranked conference opponents has doubled since BYU switched conference. This implies that the top tier of the WCC is stronger than the top tier of the MWC, but that also means the bottom of the WCC is weaker than the bottom of the MWC, which gives the Mountain West the edge in RPI.
By averaging a win a season against a Top 25 conference foe — including taking down #3 Gonzaga, in The Kennel, on Senior Night, and then doing it again this season against a Gonzaga team ranked #1 — BYU has shown their ability to hang with the big boys of the conference. And yet, regular season results in the WCC feel underwhelming. Why?
Because when compared to BYU’s MWC regular season results, they have been. While in the MWC, BYU lost to a bottom half team only twice in the regular season. That’s a 46-2 record against teams that finished 6th or worse. In WCC play, BYU is 51-9 against teams that finished 6th or worse. BYU is 70-14 (83%) against teams out of the WCC top 3 compared to the 64-8 (89%) record they had against the MWC non-top 3 teams. BYU is playing better against tougher opponents, but is dropping more games against decidedly worse teams.
I believe this is the result of a few factors: psychological issues, recruiting and talent development, and roster turnover.
1. Psychological issues are hard to measure, so this idea comes more from my personal experience and attitude when I play sports. BYU has lost its swagger. No longer is BYU guaranteed a spot in the top 2 of the conference, let alone being a favorite to win the conference. The program went from a position of top dog to underdog. Teams in the WCC look at BYU and are not intimidated by a non-Gonzaga team. In addition to that, BYU outrunning any team they play is less of a threat than it was 5 years ago. The average NCAA tempo is increasing, so it is only natural that other teams are adjusting to that.
2. Recruiting and talent development issues are easier to quantify. BYU landed their first ESPN Top 100 recruit in 2011 and has 5 ESPN Top 100 players currently on the roster. This would imply that the talent level of BYU has increased recently. All 5 of those players are in their first or second year with the program, so this increase in high school talent has been extremely recent and it would appear that BYU’s efforts in recruiting have decreased.
BYU long had an international reach and had at least one international player from 2005-2012. Since then, BYU has not had a single international on the roster. Thus, it appears that BYU, though recently having major recruiting success, has been putting less effort into finding hidden gems. The Mountain West teams sent 6 players to professional basketball and had one more player who is a BYU record holder. They are Keena Young, Lee Cummard, Jonathan Tavernari, Charles Abouo, Brandon Davies, Jimmer, and Jackson Emery. None of these players were highly touted out of high school, and all ended up playing professionally (except for Emery, who ended his career as the all-time steals leader). BYU has able to take lesser known or respected players and build them up into professional level players.
Since joining the WCC, BYU has only had 4 pros on the roster (Tyler Haws, Matt Carlino, Kyle Collinsnworth, and Chase Fischer, and Eric Mika will make this 5 soon). This could (and should) change with the talent currently on the roster, but we will see. Until then, we are left with the reality that BYU started off their WCC tenure with a below average roster.
3. Roster turnover has also been an issue in recent years. BYU averages 15 players a year on the roster. Assuming an even split between each year, you would expect about 4 players to leave each year and get replaced. In the MWC, BYU had an average of 4.6 new players a year. The fewest new players to start a WCC season was 5 in 2012. BYU’s WCC teams have averaged 7 new players a year. Every year in the WCC, BYU has changed about half of the roster. Because there is little consistency from year to year, it is hard for a team to develop chemistry and hard for the coaching staff to figure out rotations that work together. Ever wonder why it seems BYU never has a set starting lineup and main rotation until midway through conference play? This does not even factor in player returning from missions. I believe the mission age change in 2012 heavily affected BYU’s roster issues, but should resolve itself within the next few years as fewer players are splitting playing time around a mission. Missions are not anything new to BYU and the effects on the roster are generally predictable, but the age change had an immediate impact and the ramifications are still being felt. In 2013, BYU had 9 new players on the roster and Mika is the only player to leave on a mission and come back since the age change. The roster flux is starting to level out and there should be fewer issues in the future, but there is no denying that turnover has been a problem in recently. It is hard to build chemistry when half of the team is changing from year to year.
BYU has underperformed in the WCC, but the reasons are a mix of things BYU can and cannot control. In the next few years, as BYU develops arguably its most talented roster to date, and as the roster changes level out to pre-mission age change levels, we will be able to tell whether the problems mainly lie with the coaching staff and an inability to recruit and develop talent, or with the roster issues that were exacerbated by the mission age change (from which BYU’s roster is yet to fully recover from).