If you rewind back to a week or so ago, things weren't looking so promising for the boys of BYU basketball.
They had just taken a loss to a Harvard team that many observers (and virtually every statistical measure) considered to be drastically inferior, dropping the Cougars to 7-4 on the season and shunting the Cougars to the losers' bracket in the Diamond Head Classic.
The latter consequence was potentially the more problematic of the two — with no victories over opponents ranked in the RPI's Top 100, BYU's resume was looking worryingly thin, and not getting the chance to try for a "signature win" against a top-flight team like Oklahoma in the tournament's championship game felt like a crucial missed opportunity.
The team was playing poorly, they were losing to bad teams and there weren't a lot of obvious answers in sight. Things were looking dark for the Cougars, even as they sunned themselves in paradise.
Fast forward a week to today. While BYU is far from out of the woods and much work remains to be done, things look much brighter for Dave Rose's men. What happened?
Well, it started by winning games. A pair of convincing victories over an average New Mexico squad and a very good Northern Iowa team (the Cougars' first Top 100 win of the year) were enough to temporarily soothe many of the psychological wounds inflicted by the group's early struggles. It also didn't hurt that Harvard made a run to the tournament final, giving Oklahoma a stiff challenge before ultimately coming up short — and rocketing themselves nearly into the RPI's Top 100 in the process. That loss didn't feel quite so bad by the time the team departed Hawaii with a solid 2-1 record in their back pocket.
But most importantly, the team just looked better in its final two games on the island. They passed the "eye test," perhaps for the first time all season. Things just looked more fluid and success seemed to come more easily on both ends of the court. Rose made a few subtle but important strategic changes as the tournament progressed, and they appeared — for the time being — to produce results.
This new found momentum now carries the Cougars into West Coast Conference play, where they open with a tough road test against St. Mary's on Thursday.
The Gaels have been the conference's most consistent team to date, and have proven to be an offensive juggernaut in the process. It will be no easy task to walk out of Moraga with a win, but topping the baddest guys on the block in your first time out would certainly signal that perhaps the Cougars finally have arrive and set a promising, positive tone for the team moving forward into the rest of their WCC schedule.
Continuing this momentum will likely prove to be crucial, as BYU plays six of its first eight conference games away from Provo. That's a significant challenge for any team, but even more so for this one, which has struggled mightily on the road so far this season. The Cougars have yet to win a true "road" game, going 0-for-3 in trips to Long Beach State, Utah and Colorado.
Granted, all of those teams are currently ranked among the RPI's Top 100, so they were difficult opponents to begin with — and winning on the road is never easy in college basketball. But the Cougars will need to figure out how to do it early and often to success in conference play. Perhaps their experience playing top-flight teams in tough environments — as frustrating as the losses were — will ultimately benefit them come Thursday in California.
BYU fans better hope so. There's a lot riding on this initial stretch of WCC road tests. It's likely a "make or break" period for the team's postseason aspirations. If the Cougars can keep their mojo going and navigate these treacherous waters with the same aplomb they showed in Honolulu, they'll be well on their way to positioning themselves as at-large contenders come March.
But if not? If they revert back to their same old struggles? If their road woes continue and they drop a few games, particularly to substandard opponents? Well, things could get dark again in a hurry. Thanks to BYU's non-conference difficulties, the margin for error is razor thin moving forward.
Bottom line: It's sink-or-swim time for the Cougars. Luckily, they just spent a whole lot of time at the beach.