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BYU basketball's offensive challenges: The halfcourt game

The Cougars are lethal in transition, but harmless in halfcourt offense. Will this year's team struggle when the game slows down again? Keith brings the stats.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Fredette. Ainge. Smith. Durrant.

These are the four men that walk on this planet who have scored more points for BYU than Tyler Haws. Haws, barring injury, will certainly become the scoring king at BYU.

Haws scored 1,547 in his sophomore and junior years. That's good for the eighth most points over sophomore and junior years by any college player since 1997. Of the 13 players who have scored over 1500 points combined in their sophomore and junior years, only four have done it on fewer field goals. Gonzaga's Adam Morrison, Weber State's Damian Lillard, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, and Creighton's Doug McDermott.

Thank heavens the Cougars have Tyler Haws on the floor.

Almost as important for BYU's offense as having Haws is getting into transition. Running the floor has been a core offensive philosophy of Dave Rose since he became head coach 10 years ago, but the pace was taken up another level in 2013. Why? Because the Cougars were an awesome transition offense team with a rotten halfcourt offense. Looking at this season's personnel, it appears likely that the same will be true in the 2014-15 season.

Let's go back and look at last year's halfcourt offense.

WCC tournament semifinals. BYU and San Francisco tied at 64 with 33.5 seconds left. Cougars have the ball and it is time to draw up the best play at the biggest moment of the season to this point. Feel free to relive this dumpster fire of halfcourt offense by watching the video below:

This moment caused me to spend several minutes dissecting it on CougarCast. Here's a clip of that — its duration is 3:24.

CougarCast clip - BYU's last play vs. USF

This play is indicative of the Cougars' season-long struggles in halfcourt offense. That was a culminating moment near the end of the season and it was the best they could do. Problems in the halfcourt are problematic particularly because games that are close late usually become exclusively about execution in that area.

So let's take a look at how the 2013-14 team did offensively in games within 10 points with 2:00 or less left to play. BYU played in 17 such games last year. Returning players are listed in bold.

Possessions Used Field Goals 3-Point Field Goals Free Throws Points Turnovers
Matt Carlino

38

8/24 (25%) 1/11 (9.1%) 14/20 (70%) 26 3
Tyler Haws 33 10/23 (43.5%) 1/6 (16.7%) 13/14 (91.7%) 30 3
Kyle Collinsworth 21 3/9 (33.3%) 1/3 (33.3%) 11/22 (50%) 18 2
Skyler Halford 12 1/5 (20%) 1/4 (25%) 8/8 (100%) 11 2
Frank Bartley IV 9 4/6 (66.7%) 0/1 (0%) 1/5 (20%) 9 1
Nate Austin 5 1/2 (50%)
4/6 (66.7%) 6
Eric Mika 4 0/2 (0%) 2
Anson Winder 4 1/1 (100%) 1/1 (100%) 4/6 (66.7%) 7
Josh Sharp 1 1/2 (50%) 1
TOTAL 127 28/72 (38.9%) 5/26 (19.2%) 56/83 (67.5%) 108 13

It's clear that the execution wasn't great. Oftentimes despite having a halfcourt set in place, the result of a possession was a player abandoning the play and finding their own (usually contested) shot. Thus, the 38.9/19.2 percent stink-bomb of shooting.

(As an aside, BYU seems to have had zero discipline or game plan late in games when it came to teams intentionally fouling to stop the clock and give up free throws.

(Tyler Haws was intentionally fouled and sent to the line against Utah State on November 30, 2013. Despite BYU players being sent to the line 51 times after the Utah State game, it wasn't until March 10, 2014 in OT against San Francisco in the WCC Tournament (a 24-game drought!) that Haws was given the ball in an obvious foul situation. Instead, the Cougars opted for 69 percent free throw shooter Matt Carlino or 57 percent Kyle Collinsworth to have those duties, despite Haws being the all-time leader in free throw percentage in BYU history.

(Frequently, Haws would be on the wrong side of half-court in foul scenarios on the inbound pass. Of the 51 crunch-time foul shots taken between November 30 and March 10, only 12 were taken by a player who shot greater than 70 percent on the season. When the Cougars played Gonzaga in the WCC tournament championship, BYU intentionally fouled Gonzaga five times to stop the clock. The ball found its way into Kevin Pangos' team-best 87%-free-throw-shooting hands every time. It is this kind of execution that separates champions from runners up.)

Frequently, it appeared as if there wasn't a system in place to handle these late game scenarios. Of course, there was a system. So why wasn't it working?

In the past, Dave Rice handled the duties of drawing up a play. Rice is a wizard of X's and O's. He was quickly snatched up by his alma mater UNLV and is leading the Rebels to successful seasons. Now, Terry Nashif carries that responsibility.

By looking at late game numbers, it doesn't look like Nashif is Dave Rice.

Beyond that, a successful halfcourt offense needs spacing. Spacing is only created when there is a scoring threat from all areas of the floor. For my money, spacing has been the bigger issue — it has been a problem for the past two years.

Naturally, when spacing is considered in regard to the BYU offense, one's mind turns to the opinion of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Donatello and Leonardo from TNMT 2: The Secret of The Ooze.

Donatello: The perimeter's quiet.

Leonardo:  Yeah, a little too quiet.

BYU made 177 threes last season (256th of 351 nationally). That's the first time in the Dave Rose era that his team has finished a season with less than 200 baskets from deep. It is the lowest total since 2003-04. In 35 games last year, BYU made more threes than their opponent in only 6 games. The Cougars went 5-1 in those contests.

Opponents didn't need to defend all the way to the arc. That part of BYU's struggles has been well documented, and is probably an issue with which you are well acquainted. But just as troubling to floor spacing woes has been BYU's lack of scoring threat at all 5 positions on the floor — and in particular, power forward and center.

For two seasons running, BYU has played 4-on-5 on offense.  When Eric Mika or Brandon Davies faced foul trouble, the Cougars played 3-on-5 on offense.

Nate Austin, for all the other things he does well, looks terrified with the ball in his hands. Countless times over his career, he has been left wide open from 10-15 feet and refused to take the open jumper. He isn't alone in his discomfort on offense. Josh Sharp took a dribble on the perimeter last season. It looked like a wobbly baby giraffe ambling up to his or her feet for the first time. And Luke Worthington's "Boom Shakalaka" performance of eight consecutive bricks on unguarded 8-foot bank shots wasn't exactly shocking either.

These three players have value as energy guys, and score primarily on weak side layups or dunks when opposing defenders are caught cheating off them. But nobody is going to consider double-teaming them — and their defensive matchup is frequently the player who will leave to double Tyler Haws. One could and should hope for an improvement in their contribution on the offensive end. Just don't hold your breath.

Every other player potentially playing at the 4 or 5 spot is an unknown and it's best to wait and see. But it is critical that someone, and hopefully multiple players, out of Austin, Sharp, Worthington, Jamal Aytes, Ryan Andrus, Isaac Neilson, Dalton Nixon or Corbin Kaufusi establish themselves as confident offensive players. Otherwise, every minute of this season, BYU will be playing 3-on-5 on offense — and that is a major challenge.

Combining the struggles from 3-point land and the lack of scoring from the posts indicates trouble with spacing the floor. Which, in turn, results in a difficult scenario for a high-functioning halfcourt offense, and once again will spell frustration when the Cougars seek key buckets late in games.

Understanding these problems with frontcourt scoring and 3-point shooting, Rose placed even larger emphasis on last year's team playing in transition and attacking the rim. BYU was extremely successful on offense when they could run the floor. The reason for this is simple: spacing doesn't matter if you beat the defense down the court. Beyond that, if transition doesn't lead to the ball going through the hoop, oftentimes it does lead to a trip to the foul line.

The Cougars ran the floor to the tune of 83.7 points per game, which was good for third in the nation, and 1,055 free throw attempts, which was second in the nation. There is no doubt Rose's transition-heavy approach put points on the board.

But what happens when teams slow down the tempo of the game to take away transition, avoid turnovers and hit threes? That was the kryptonite formula in WCC play last season, and BYU fell to Loyola Marymount, Portland, Pacific, Pepperdine and Gonzaga when their opponents could execute just enough of it.

Offensively, the Cougars have a very good, even devastating option in transition with Haws and Collinsworth on the floor. Unfortunately, there are going to be more than a few nights where transition is limited, foul trouble looms or the game tightens up late. On those nights (barring miraculous defensive improvement), how BYU handles their challenges in halfcourt offense will determine its destiny this season. Those games will resolve the big questions of whether or not BYU is a true WCC title contender and NCAA tournament team.

In Haws and transition we trust.