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Why BYU basketball changed its starting lineup

BYU's starting lineup was consistently outscored -- that's why Coach Rose made a change.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best parts about basketball is the communal aspect of the sport. It is plain and simple, there are just some people you play better with than others.

Sometimes, you find the exactly right people to play with, and everything clicks... like the cosmos have designed for the five players' basketball sensibilities to synergize into a great lineup. The floor spacing, skill sets, movement, passing all click with un-guardable offensive precision and unsolvable defensive tenacity.

BYU's former starting lineup of Kyle Collinsworth, Chase Fischer, Nick Emery, Kyle Davis, and Nate Austin don't have this experience as a group.

You may have noticed this indirectly. Frequently, the Cougars were "off to a slow start." People assumed that is was due to the shooting not being in rhythm, or the players were too laid back at tipoff and need a few minutes to get into gear. The truth is much less mystic.

BYU's last starting lineup is not a good lineup. The pieces are all good, very solid and useful. They just weren't great together.

Since BYU began WCC play on New Year's Eve, I've tracked the plus-minus stat for every player individually and all 88 lineup combinations Dave Rose has tried out on the court.

For those unfamiliar with the plus-minus stat, here is a crash course. Plus-minus (I'll use +/- from here) is a useful look at how a player's time on the court impacted the scoreboard.

For example, it is the 2nd half in Spokane, Washington. The Cougars trail Gonzaga by 13, a score of 47-34, with 14:46 left in the game. Jordan Chatman checks into the game for Corbin Kaufusi. Chatman plays over the next 11:48. While Chatman is on the floor, the Cougars defense begins to slow the Bulldogs. The ball movement picks up offensively. The baskets start adding up.

Chatman checks out with 2:58 left with the Cougars trailing by just 2 points, 61-63 Bulldogs. During this shift on the floor, Chatman recorded a huge +11! BYU outscored Gonzaga by 11 points while Chatman was on the floor.

The +/- stat is imperfect, but it does give a decent overall picture of a player (or a group of players) impact on both ends of the floor.

In regards to +/-, without question, the worst performing lineup that sees significant minutes is BYU's former starting lineup. Take a look at the table below.

1 2 3 4 5 lineup +/- time on court
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Nick Emery Kyle Davis Nate Austin -13 96:07
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Nick Emery Kyle Davis Corbin Kaufusi +18 41:20
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Nick Emery Zac Seljaas Kyle Davis +14 33:43
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Nick Emery Zac Seljaas Nate Austin +19 24:56
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Nick Emery Nate Austin Corbin Kaufusi +5 19:19
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Jordan Chatman Kyle Davis Nate Austin +18 15:41
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Nick Emery Jakob Hartsock Kyle Davis +8 15:07
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Zac Seljaas Kyle Davis Nate Austin +3 14:33
Kyle Collinsworth Chase Fischer Nick Emery Zac Seljaas Corbin Kaufusi +4 11:28

The only lineup used in WCC play to have logged at least 10 minutes together which is getting outscored is BYU's former starting lineup. This unit has struggled to be productive.

There may be practical reasons why the former starters have consistently relied on the bench to pick up the slack for them. For instance, they were likely playing against the opponents best group, yielding the most challenging matchup. Perhaps explaining why they are on the losing end of their 96 minutes on the floor. So, lets take a look at the former starters' performances in WCC play in terms of +/-.

Game @ St. Mary's @ Pacific vs. Santa Clara vs. San Francisco @ Gonzaga @ Portland @ Loyola Marymount @ Pepperdine vs. Loyola Marymount vs. Pepperdine vs. St. Mary's vs. Pacific
+/- 8 -2 10 0 0 -4 3 -11 -3 -9 -2 -3
Time on court 9:25 11:25 10:59 4:28 4:54 17:34 6:53 11:08 6:45 4:41 4:08 3:47

The Cougars most used, experienced lineup has outscored their opponent in 3 of 12 WCC outings and is -29 over the last month of basketball games.

Despite that, the former starting lineup has received the opportunity to play 55-70 minutes more than lineups that have double digit leads over their rivals.

Fortunately, it appears that the major bench contributors like Corbin Kaufusi, Zac Seljaas, and Jordan Chatman are better players off the bench then their WCC opposition substitutes. They simply give Dave Rose a better grouping option when he has to deal with rest or foul trouble. But it is more than that.

Rose must have realized that he had to abandon the approach of the vast majority of minutes going to a lineup grouping that usually plays losing basketball.

The former starting lineup had adequate time to learn how to play together and they simply didn't mesh. With the bench talent at Dave Rose's disposal, it was likely that a different starting lineup would likely outperform what they had tried in the first 10 games of conference play.

Rather than going back to Kaufusi, or trying out Seljaas or Chatman as starters, Coach Rose elected to try a new starting lineup by surprisingly inserting the inexperienced Jakob Hartsock for Nate Austin. Hartsock had only played 33 minutes all season up to two weeks ago. Since, Hartsock has seen the floor for 66 minutes.

This was a gutsy decision by Coach Rose as the new starting lineup of Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Hartsock, and Davis had NEVER played together before in WCC play. The new grouping has performed well thus far. This new group was a +4 in each of the games against St. Mary's and Pacific giving them a total of +8 in 15:07 of play. A positive change!

Unfortunately, in each of last week's games, Dave Rose looked to Nate Austin as his 6th man to substitute for Hartsock signifying a return to the old starters lineup. This group continued to struggle. This group was -5 last week, a full 13 points worst than the new starting lineup.

It is very straightforward. BYU should no longer be playing that lineup. Ever. Rose needs to get away from this substitution pattern and fast.

Coaching basketball is an extremely difficult skill. Frequently, within the course of a game and season there are so many factors to consider when it comes to playing time. Injuries, foul trouble, matchup issues, fatigue, player confidence and form -- the balancing and mixing of which all contribute to success and failure. The scenarios are so fluid. What worked before may no longer work.

When seemingly nothing is working, like against Pacific last Saturday, Rose tried out 5 new lineups -- including trying Hartsock out at the 3 -- to see if they would stick. They, too, fell flat. The 5 brand-new lineups went -4 in 4:36.

Then again, maybe Rose was allowing Pacific to dictate his lineups too much rather than causing Pacific to react to his lineups. With all the struggles the Cougars experienced against the Tigers, Dave Rose perplexingly never went small. When Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Seljaas, and (anybody), play together, the Cougars are +34 over 70:56 in WCC play.

Given how BYU was playing Saturday, perhaps it wouldn't have mattered. However, if Rose was desprate enough to try Jakob Hartsock at the 3, wouldn't he be equally desprate enough to "risk" trying out Seljaas at the 4 against the big Pacific frontline?  Maybe Zac Seljaas wasn't really available after his recent shoulder injury. On the other hand, Seljaas did play 12 minutes against Pacific, so why didn't Dave Rose go small?

As mentioned before, in the past 12 games Rose has played 88 different lineups. Most of these lineups haven't had enough time on the court to make a ruling on their viability for playing winning basketball. However, Cougar fans should be encouraged that Coach Rose is taking minutes away from his former preferred lineup.

As such, here are some lineups, outside of the small ball (Seljaas at the 4 with Collinsworth, Fischer, and Emery) lineups and new starting lineup, which merit further playing time based on their past WCC performance.

Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Davis, and Kaufusi. Amazingly, the simple change of Austin for Kaufusi takes this lineup from -13 to +18. This group has played 41:20 together.

Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Hartsock and Kaufusi. This lineup is +6 in 6:54. When considering this and the above paragraph, I think it is clear that Kaufusi should be the 6th man rather than Austin as he fits better with either Davis or Hartsock -- while Austin is limited to playing with just Kyle Davis.

We haven't seen much of the Hartsock and Austin frontcourt pairing (only 2:00), but from the standpoint of offensive floor spacing, it doesn't give BYU anyone to work in the paint if they are paired together. Perhaps Collinsworth could fill that role in the post, but it would be at the cost of having KC running the offense from the perimeter. All for the benefit of playing Hartsock and Austin together. Not worth it.

Collinsworth, Fischer, Chatman, Davis and Austin. In carbon copy to 3 paragraphs above, the simple change of Emery for Chatman takes this lineup from -13 to +18. This group has played 15:41 together. They are outscoring their opponents by more than 1 point per minute. WHOA.

An added benefit of using this lineup is that it may help significantly to find more rest for Nick Emery. His freshman/mission legs are showing. Since eclipsing 600 minutes on the season 4 games ago, Emery is 17-of-50 (34%) from the field and 4-of-25 (16%) from 3. To help the post-season efforts, Emery needs to get more rest. Chapman can capably fill in.

Collinsworth, Fischer, Emery, Chatman, Kaufusi. This lineup hasn't seen much of the floor, playing just 4:18 together, but they were dynamite when they did -- logging a +11 playing at St. Mary's and home to Loyola Marymount. Would love to see them work again to see if there is something here.

A regular season conference championship isn't in the cards for BYU this season. An NCAA bid comes only from winning next month's conference tournament. Rose can use the next three weeks to tinker and find the right lineup groupings to give BYU a chance at doing something they haven't done since 2001, and never accomplished under its current head coach -- win a conference tournament.