Greetings from the sunny shores of Maui, where BYU is preparing to take on old Mountain West rival San Diego State in just a few short hours. As this is both my first time covering the EA Sports Maui Invitational and my first visit to Hawaii, I've spent the last few days availing myself of the island's many sights and activities — as have the Cougars.
BYU flew in on Thursday to get acclimated, log a bit of practice time in the tiny Lahaina Civic Center (capacity 2,400), and spend some time doing all the fun stuff you can only do when you're in Hawaii. The team has participated in a variety of tournament-sponsored parties and activities, even coming away with a couple championships — Frank Bartley IV and Luke Worthington reigned supreme in the cornhole competition, and Corbin Kaufusi showed no shame in dominating the hula contest.
But the Cougars' leisure time wasn't all of the tournament-organized variety. Coach Dave Rose also arranged to take his team on an exotic excursion — and one that may symbolically illustrate the moment facing this BYU squad as they embark on the basketball portion of their Maui adventure.
Let's listen to how Rose told the tale at Sunday's pre-tournament press conference:
"We had an opportunity to get here a little bit early, so we took our guys snorkeling one day on Friday. We had quite a few of our players who had never been through that experience, so that was, I think that will last all season long, a couple of those guys coming up choking the first two or three times they went in. I'm sure our players will have fun with that the rest of the year."
Doesn't that sound fun? Of course it does. Snorkeling is fun and teammates are fun and teammates teasing each other about their lack of snorkeling skills is fun. Everything about this is fun.
But it's also a bit prescient. You see, if you strain really hard (and having been out trekking around in the hot Maui sun for the past few days, I'm feeling quite strained myself), you can see a bit of a parable emerge — Rose may be talking about snorkeling, but he very well could be describing the Cougars' season up to this point as well.
Think about it: Despite having five seniors, BYU lacks a good deal of experience at several positions up and down the roster, breeding a lack of familiarity with the system and with one another. They have five brand new freshmen suiting up this season, and seven new faces altogether. So much like snorkeling, a good portion of Rose's team has also never been through this whole experience (i.e., Division I basketball) together either.
And also like snorkeling, in their first two or three times out, several Cougars have "come up choking" at times, to borrow Rose's expression. Outside the steady hustle of Nate Austin, the post rotation remains a significant question mark, with no one really establishing themselves as a key contributor as of yet — particularly on the offensive end. With Kyle Collinsworth clearly not at 100 percent and Skyler Halford manning the backup duties with inconsistent results, the point guard spot is as hazy as ever. And outside of Tyler Haws and Chase Fischer, it's still not abundantly clear who BYU will be able to rely on as a consistent scoring threat.
And yet, all of that's been OK. These types of struggles are what the first few games of a season are for. This is why you play the Arkansas-Little Rocks and Southern Virginias of the world — to work out the kinks in a low-pressure environment where a win is virtually assured.
To his credit, Rose has made the most of these early contests. He's worked through an endless array of lineup combinations, searching for the ones that will actually work. He's consistently gone 13-14 players deep on any given night in his pursuit of the right matches. As one would expect, this approach has produced a few clunkers, but there have also been some bright spots — and given the strength (or lack thereof) of the opposition, those bright spots were enough to outshine any problem spots and get the win each and every time.
But here's where the challenge comes in: the days of the Arkansas-Little Rocks and the Southern Virginias and even the Long Beach States are over. Because starting this evening in Maui, this young BYU team will graduate to the big leagues — whether they're ready or not. And if they're not, the Cougars could be in for a rude awakening.
Despite their offensive struggles, San Diego State is a very good basketball team that plays some legit defense. They have the capacity to suffocate any team they come up against — and while BYU's high-octane attack should pose more of a challenge, it's quite possible the Aztecs are entirely up to it. If the Cougars waltz in and put forth a Long Beach State-type effort, they could conceivably lose by 20-plus on national television. And this is just the first game of the Maui Invitational — there are two more games after the first one, potentially against even better teams.
All of which is to say that the time for rampant experimentation is drawing to a close. Sure, Rose has in the past and will continue to tinker with the precise makeup of his rotation all the way until conference play. That's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about sitting Haws for extended periods of time. We're talking about trotting out lineups featuring no real scoring threat whatsoever. We're talking about generally throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. If BYU wants to hang with the likes of a 16th-ranked Aztec team and potentially get a huge resume win for March, there's a much more limited margin for error than there has been up until this point.
That doesn't necessarily mean Rose shouldn't be trying new things at all. This is, after all, the fourth game of the season. He should be trying to find the right balances and matchups. But choosing to challenge yourself with a tournament like Maui and an opponent like San Diego State this early in the year also means placing some constraints on yourself when it comes to experimenting — at least if you don't want to get blown out on a big stage and risk leaving a lasting negative impression on the selection committee.
I'm fairly confident Dave Rose doesn't want to get blown out by his old conference nemesis, so I'd imagine we'll see him play tonight's game a bit more straight than he has the opening three contests. Look for a shorter rotation, more predictable lineup formulations, and a lot more Tyler Haws. That may or may not be enough to beat the Aztecs — but when the lights go on and all eyes in the college basketball world turn to you, you'd rather go down swinging with the guys you know rather than potentially come up choking with the ones you don't quite yet.