BYU opened their exhibition season with an 82-64 victory at the Marriott Center, triumphing over the visiting Colorado School of Mines.
Tyler Haws led all scorers with 29 points in just 25 minutes of play, while Chase Fischer added 13 and Jake Toolson chipped in 12. Dalton Nixon also contributed 10 points.
The Cougars were without two key cogs in their lineup, Kyle Collinsworth and Nate Austin, both of whom sat out due to lingering injury concerns. Indications from within the program are that Collinsworth's recovery from knee surgery is on schedule and that the dynamic point guard will play in the team's next exhibition game on November 8.
There's not much one can draw from an exhibition beatdown on a Division II school from a macro perspective. It was pretty uneventful stuff. However, these early games — while they may not count on BYU's record — each provide an opportunity to gain interesting insight into coach Dave Rose's thought process, particularly as 17 players jockey for playing time.
So what did we learn from the Cougars' victory over the Orediggers? Let's take a look.
1. The kids are alright
True freshmen Jake Toolson and Dalton Nixon both had strong showings against Mines, serving as two of the team's top scorers. Nixon was especially impressive to me, likely because I had very low expectations coming in. But the Orem High School product looked very much like he belonged on both ends of the floor — knocking down open perimeter looks, using his big frame to score inside, and even blocking three shots (and altering several others) on defense. I wasn't sure how Nixon would match up against Division I athletes (and I suppose we still don't have an answer to that question), but I feel more comfortable today than I did previously. If he can turn in this kind of performance against better competition, he could provide real value as a "stretch four" for the Cougars this season.
By contrast, I never doubted that Toolson had the capability of contributing at the highest levels of collegiate hoops — at least offensively. He demonstrated the reasons why again on Saturday, fearlessly taking (and making) shots from all over the court. He is an excellent shooter, and he possesses an aggressiveness that is rare among freshmen playing with such established scoring options as Haws and Fischer. Toolson certainly won't be a primary option for BYU with such a wealth of scoring talent on the team, but if he can consistently create good looks when called upon, he could carve out a place in the rotation. What might prevent that from happening? His defense. Jake doesn't possess great lateral quickness, and he had trouble staying in front of Mines' guards on the perimeter. If he continues to be a liability on the defensive end (and the challenges are only going to grow from here), it could be difficult for Rose to justify feeding him minutes, no matter how good he is offensively. Thankfully for Toolson, there's still plenty of time to prove he can guard well enough to stay on the floor.
2. Winder, Halford lead backup point guard race
While the first exhibition didn't provide a ton of clarity on the developing race for BYU's backup point guard spot, we did get some glimpses of how things are taking shape. Anson Winder started the game in place of the injured Collinsworth, indicating that he may currently have an edge on the backup spot once Kyle returns. He acquitted himself in getting the team into their halfcourt offense, but didn't face much pressure and, thus, didn't have many chances to prove himself under duress. Anson is a good player that will get minutes somewhere no matter what, but I remain unsure if he has the ability to create looks for others that BYU would undoubtedly like to see in its backup point guard.
Skyler Halford spelled Winder and played heavy minutes at the point, indicating that Rose is seriously considering him in that role. I still get nervous any time he dribbles the ball in transition, particularly when defenders are in close proximity. He just looks out of control and his handle is a little too loose for my liking. But he performed fine against Mines with few turnovers — although, like Winder, he faced little pressure from the Orediggers.
Frank Bartley didn't get a ton of time running the offense — or even playing at all. The sophomore only saw 8 minutes on the floor, during which he managed to turn the ball over three times. Not a particularly helpful argument to his case for point guard minutes. Jordan Ellis fared a little better in his 10 minutes, notching two assists to one turnover. He appears to handle the ball well enough in transition to get the Cougars from point A to point B — but the question remains about what he can actually do once they get there. I remain unconvinced of his ability to create consistently in the halfcourt, but Ellis figures to have at least a few more opportunities to prove otherwise.
3. Appearances can be deceiving
I wasn't particularly excited about Isaac Neilson after watching his exceptionally gawky performance in the dunk contest at Boom Shakalaka. I just wasn't sure how someone of such questionable coordination could have an impact on a real game. Well, it turns out that having ridiculously long arms can be a good thing. Neilson had a tangible impact — grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking two shots and generally just hustling all over the place in his 19 minutes. He also drained his only 3-point attempt, seemingly validating the months of breathless speculation that he really could fill it up from deep.
There remains some question about whether he possesses enough strength to be effective in the paint against more developed bigs, but I like what I've seen from Neilson so far and wouldn't be opposed to Rose experimenting with him alongside Austin as a "stretch four," much like Nixon. He's an interesting player with some unique strengths that should certainly be explored and developed.
4. Chatman and Andrus are on redshirt watch
It's highly unlikely that Rose will actually carry 17 active players on the roster once the season begins for real in a few weeks. That's a lot of guys fighting over very few available minutes, and there's a very good chance that a few guys see the writing on the wall and opt against wasting a year of eligibility sitting on the bench. The leading candidates for such a yearlong sabbatical so far? Jordan Chatman and Ryan Andrus. Neither freshman has looked particularly comfortable out of the court yet. They just seem a bit overmatched by the speed of play and the strength of their opponents.
Chatman looked tentative and slightly lost against Mines, as if he's operating a split-second behind everyone else on the floor. It's entirely possible (and very reasonable!) that his recent return from a mission and immediate knee surgery are playing a big role in him just being a step off here. He's a talented player that has a big future in the program, and it could be beneficial for Jordan to consider taking a redshirt year to get his body full healthy and his game back up to speed after a long layoff, while also ensuring he doesn't burn a year floundering in the logjam that is BYU's current guard line.
Andrus appears similarly overmatched, albeit in a different way. It's clear that his body just isn't as mature as many of his fellow posts, making it hard for him to be as effective down in the painted area. That's not a knock on Ryan — he was in high school a few months ago and several of these other guys have been off their missions for several years now. It's natural for them to be quite a bit bigger and stronger. But the reality of the situation being what it is, It's hard for me to see a way that Andrus plays a significant role for the Cougars this season. It could be useful for him to save the year of eligibility, serve his mission as planned beginning next summer, then come back with a more mature body and ready to bang down low in 2017. There's no shame in waiting for Father Time to work his magic.
5. Rose is experimenting with small ball
Exhibitions games exist for coaches to try new things before the games actually matter — lineups, schemes, plays, etc. Dave Rose took advantage of his latest opportunity by trotting out a "small ball" lineup to begin the second half against Mines, with Halford joining first half starters Haws, Fischer, Winder and Luke Worthington in a one-big lineup. The results weren't bad, although they would undoubtedly be better if it was Collinsworth joining that group. That's not necessarily a knock on Halford so much as it is a fact of life. Let me explain.
Small ball should be an effective offensive strategy for the Cougars — they've got plenty of guys who can score the basketball, and creating mismatches that play to this team's guard strength is a wise move by Rose. However, there's always a risk involved in these situations, and it comes on the defensive end. By playing a smaller lineup to take advantage offensively, you risk being overmatched down low on the other end if your opponent decides to stay big.
This is where a lineup like the one played by Rose on Saturday is especially vulnerable. If Mines were a competent Division I team (and it would be unfair to expect them to be one), they likely would have pounded the ball inside, taking advantage of how much size and strength BYU was giving up defensively. This is where Collinsworth's value becomes clear over a player like, say, Halford. Because of his size and skill set, Kyle can guard the post on defense and still contribute to a perimeter-oriented attack on offense. He matches up with forwards all the time, so he has the unique ability to give Rose an athletic advantage offensively while not posing too much of a defensive liability.
That's just something that Halford (or, really, most guards) can't replicate. It's just not physically possible — and that's OK. It's just another reason why Kyle Collinsworth is such a uniquely great player. It will be most interesting to see how Rose's small ball experiment plays out once his most versatile player returns to the lineup.