There has been much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth across Cougar Nation, following BYU's 66-65 road loss to Long Beach State in the early hours of Tuesday morning.
There's no getting around it. This was an ugly performance against a poor opponent in a game that, based on talent, the Cougars absolutely should have won. When the Selection Committee sits down to sort out the NCAA tournament field four months from now, this one is virtually guaranteed to show up in the "bad loss" column on BYU's resume.
Nevertheless, all is not lost. There is still lots of basketball left to be played, including several high-profile games that should give BYU ample opportunities to notch some signature wins and make the LBSU loss a mere footnote on their season. But make no mistake: in order for that to happen, the Cougars have some serious work to do.
Through the season's first two games, several alarming trends have evidenced themselves that should give BYU fans cause for concern. And this is not just a matter of one bad late night game —if you looked hard enough, the warning signs were there even in the Cougars' 30-point victory over an aggressively horrendous Utah Valley squad in the season opener.
If BYU is going to right the ship (and do so quickly) in order to pick up resume-building wins in key upcoming non-conference contests, Dave Rose and company need to find a way to address three big problem areas.
1. Free Throws
This is certainly the most glaring issue after the loss to Long Beach State. In a game they lost by just one point, the Cougars left 14 points at the line — shooting a disastrous 38.1 percent as a team. (Think about it this way: Right now, BYU is making the likes of Shaquille O'Neal, Dwight Howard and Deandre Jordan look like free throw savants. Yikes.) And things weren't much better against the woeful Wolverines either, with BYU converting just 66.7 percent of their collective freebies.
What is most mind-boggling about the team's free throw struggles (and that's putting it kindly) is that this is an area where the Cougars typically excel. Last season, they shot a reliable 76.6 percent from the charity stripe as a team, placing them 8th in the country in that metric. So far this season? They're converting a dismal 54.2 percent of their foul shots, which puts them at 330th nationally. Talk about a rapid fall from grace.
Thankfully, it's very early and this is something that can be remedied. It's clear that BYU can shoot free throws well — they've done it before. It's up to Rose and his staff to help them find a way to do it again. Because shooting Deandre Jordan-level bad from the line as a team won't win you many ballgames.
BYU has never been especially great at taking care of the ball. They ranked 213th in that category nationally last year, coughing it up 11.9 times per game. But the situation has dramatically worsened in the early-goings of this season. First, they turned it over 18 times against Utah Valley, directly leading to 14 points for the Wolverines. In the words of Pete Campbell, "Not great, Bob!" But hey, it was the first game of the season, everyone was playing tight and excited, and they were trying to break in a slew of new faces. Maybe, we hoped, it was just a one-time aberration against a bad team?
And then the wheels really fell off in Long Beach. Not only did they fall off, they pretty much exploded. The Cougars somehow found a way to give the ball away 24 times throughout the course of that debacle, gifting the hapless 49ers with 23 points. (For comparison, Long Beach State turned the ball over 11 times for five BYU points.) Again, this was a game BYU lost by a single point. Preventing even one of those giveaways could have tilted the outcome in the Cougars' favor. Alas, it appears the boys in blue decided to get into the Christmas spirit a bit early this year.
It goes without saying that ranking 334th nationally in turnovers because you can't stop handing your opponent the ball 21 times per game is not a recipe for future success. Teams like Utah, Colorado and even Belmont will feast on the Cougars if this type of casual play continues.
That being said, this is probably the easiest issue to fix. It is true that BYU is in the process of introducing several new players to the collegiate game, all while adjusting to life after Tyler Haws. Things should inevitably get better as the team's young talent gains experience at this level and the players begins to gel. The challenge will be figuring out how to accelerate that learning curve as much as possible, with several big games looming just around the courner.
3. Defensive Rebounds
To their credit, BYU is a really good offensive rebounding team. Their 37 offensive boards rank them 17th nationally in that statistic through two games. Between Kyle Collinsworth, Corbin Kaufusi and Kyle Davis, among others, there's no shortage of guys who have a nose for the ball when it caroms off the backboard.
All of which makes the Cougars' inability to clean their own defensive glass even more maddening. They somehow conceded 16 offensive rebounds to the 49ers, leading to nine second-chance points. That's actually not a horrific number of second-chance points given the deluge of opportunities BYU gave away, but keep in mind that a) it should have been much worse, except Long Beach State is a bad basketball team that missed a host of wide-open looks, and b) BYU lost that game by one point. Have I mentioned that?
Maybe this, too, could be considered a one-off fluke that can be explained away by the fact that the game was played long after the Holy Ghost had gone to sleep — although finding a way to give up eight offensive boards to an undersized Utah Valley team that barely belongs at the Division I level doesn't necessarily inspire great confidence either, but I digress. The point is, the Cougars are going to play a number of teams that will boast bigger, more talented frontlines than Long Beach State (Gonzaga, anyone?), and if BYU continues to give those teams multiple cracks at the basket on a regular basis, they can expect to lose by a lot larger margins in those high-profile matchups.
Again, like the other items on this list, this is an eminently fixable problem. That's the good news. BYU definitely has the personnel and the ability to rebound on the defensive end as well as they do on the offensive end — and as we already established, they're very, very good at that. All they need to do is take that exact same skill set and apply it on another basket.
Now, that's probably easier said than done — after all, rebounding is often as much about a player's mental as anything else — but the point is that it can be done. It can be fixed. All of these things can, in fact. And if Rose and his staff can figure out how to address them sooner rather than later, there's no reason the Cougars can't get right back on track to having a special season.