Every fan of every team in every sport at every level loves a good scapegoat.
It's almost a basic tenet of humanity: when things go poorly, we look for someone to blame in order to explain the failure. We love to point our proverbial finger at a person whom we arbitrarily and simplistically determine to be the root cause of an often complex problem created by a confluence of nuanced and multi-dimensional determinants. It's just who we are.
BYU fans are no different. In fact, we might enjoy them more than most. After all, we boast a rich tradition of legendary sports scapegoats. A world class selection of whipping boys — among them, Riley Nelson, Jonathan Tavernari, Jake Heaps, Brandon Davies' libido and any football coach not named LaVell Edwards — have all stalked Provo's hallowed halls in shame, alternately wallowing in a malaise of unfulfilled expectations and bathing in a pool of perennial blame.
But much like the Highlander, there can be only one true Cougar scapegoat at any given time — and most recently, that living legend was one Matthew Mario Carlino. That shouldn't surprise anyone who doesn't dwell beneath a large boulder. At certain junctures of the previous three basketball seasons, humans at every corner of the globe could probably faintly hear the screams of Carlino-directed invective emanating from Utah County.
To be sure, Carlino had all the makings of an all-time BYU scapegoat — he arrived in Provo to great fanfare, followed in the footsteps of the school's best player ever, failed to live up to impossibly high expectations that demanded he eclipse (or at least equal) said best player ever, had the audacity to play on teams that were not the absolute finest ever fielded by the program, and stubbornly insisted upon making some poor on-court decisions rather than adhering to the completely reasonable standard that college kids never make any mistakes ever.
So really, Matt Carlino had it coming. His reign was epic — chock-full of more mind-bogglingly insane CougarBoard posts than any of us could have ever reasonably hoped for — but now it is over. Alas, the man, the myth and the legend has now abdicated his throne to take his saboteurial talents to the friendlier climes of Milwaukee (where the good-hearted Midwesterners have long-since made peace with their own mediocrity and desperately needed anybody who could hit the rim from outside).
Carlino's quick exit has left a scapegoat-sized hole in our hearts. Our whips have grown cold. Our pointer fingers are becoming restless. Basketball season is coming near, and it's exceptionally unlikely that the team will challenge for a national championship. We need a new person to blame — and soon.
But who can fill the void? Who is worthy to succeed Carlino and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the reviled likes of Randy and Robbie Reid, Val Hale and Brandon Doman (circa 2011-2012)? Who is brave enough to dedicate a significant portion of his life to performing for our entertainment, then endure our never-ending scorn and inevitable disappointment when things go even the least bit sideways?
It's a tough job, but someone has to do it. Bronco Mendenhall has served as a tasty appetizer, but he alone is not enough to satiate our hunger. The fans will have their basketball scapegoat.
There will be blame.
It's only a matter of deciding where we will point the finger next. Here are the leading candidates:
5. Matt Carlino
The dark horse pick. Could Carlino really renew his grip on the throne from beyond the grave? He's already going down in the BYU scapegoat hall of fame no matter what — but could he somehow lock up a position in the highest level of the pantheon by shouldering active blame for the Cougars' current deficiencies even as he's playing for another team?
It might sound crazy, but the path to victory is there. It's entirely possible that, at some point during the upcoming season, the fan base will figure out that (without Carlino) their basketball team now has exactly one player who can reliably handle the ball against any semblance of defensive pressure — and that player is coming off serious knee surgery. The Cougars have no clear choice at point guard outside Kyle Collinsworth, so if he isn't ready to play big minutes immediately or (heaven forbid) suffers a setback, things could get bad.
And who would be to blame? Obviously the guy who left us in the lurch by transferring to another school without having the decency to make sure we could find a replacement for him! He would be ruining things from beyond this mortal coil — and only the greatest of scapegoats could manage that feat.
4. Dave Rose
This might seem like a counter-intuitive pick. After all, Rose enjoys exceptionally high levels of support from the fan base — well over 90 percent approve of his job performance, according to a recent informal poll. But his ratings have slipped, and he endured his first period of sustained skepticism last season when the Cougars suffered through a four-game losing streak. Though his reputation rebounded quickly once the team got back to winning and qualified for the NCAA tournament, the seeds of doubt were planted.
You might be thinking that this all seems pretty rash. Would the fans really turn so quickly on a guy who has never won fewer than 20 games in a season and has led his team to seven tournament appearances in the last eight years, including the school's deepest postseason run since 1981? Would they really form a mutiny against the coach who just sealed the greatest slew of recruiting classes in program history over the past three years and figures to have BYU positioned as a potential Final Four contender for the next half-decade? Doesn't that level of knee-jerk reactionism seem unrealistic?
Ask Bronco Mendenhall.
3. Skyler Halford
The stage has already been set for Halford. If anything, he began his ascension before Carlino even left. And really, Skyler has the makings of a mini-Matt. A heralded shooter and junior college All-American, he transferred to BYU with the expectation that he would help reenergize Rose's perimeter attack. He surged onto the stage with a huge performance in his first start against San Diego last season, raising expectations to a ludicrous level. And then he ultimately (and predictably) failed to meet those elevated expectations, turning in middling shooting percentages and effectively losing his role in the rotation to Anson Winder by year's end. The people were quite disillusioned and happy to filet their prized transfer for sport on the interwebs.
But that hasn't stopped Halford. He's back for more — and he's got his eye on the throne. He's one of the frontrunners for the aforementioned back-up point guard spot, despite the fact that his game is much more suited to off-ball play. If he ends up winning that role (or even being forced into the starting lineup, should Collinsworth not be immediately ready to play) and the Cougars' point guard play noticeably suffers, it wont take much for the alarmists to rise up from the muck and claim their new scapegoat.
2. Chase Fischer
While Halford may have a small head-start in the race due to his previous track record of disappointment, it's the Wake Forest transfer who has inside position to finish it off. With Carlino gone, his 13 points per game need to come from somewhere — and Fischer has been universally anointed as the natural heir.
And really, the similarities between the two go well beyond the functional need to replace Carlino's scoring. In Chase, we have another former high-profile, nationally recognized high school recruit; another much-ballyhooed transfer from a power conference program; another foreign shooter who made the voyage to our strange land in hopes of chasing the ghost of Jimmer Fredette. And now that he's here, we have built up some very high expectations on very scant evidence. Does any of this sound familiar? Because it sure does seem quite a bit like a potential Carlino redux.
Bottom line: If Fischer doesn't shoot at least 38 percent from deep (and over 40 would be preferable) and slot in effortlessly behind Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth as the team's third scoring option, there will be a lot of invective hurled in the general direction of the charismatic West Virginian. (Just wait for the #BenchFischer hashtag to take flight.) If you want an over/under projection, I'd set it at 1.5 "off" shooting nights before the carnage begins.
Better not miss, Chase — the pitchforks are sharpened and ready.
1. Kyle Collinsworth's ACL
This is the granddaddy of them all — the Rose Bowl of scapegoats, if you will. Nothing soothes the wounded sports soul like blaming an injury for all your team's problems. BYU football fans have learned this — doing so may not change your fate, but it does restore some sense of peace to your mind. We're not really this bad. If Taysom Hill hadn't gotten hurt, we wouldn't have lost all these games. And you know what's the most interesting thing about the injury scapegoat? It can be completely and totally legitimate.
Losing Kyle Collinsworth in any capacity — whether it be a slow return from surgery or a tragic reinjury that cause him to miss additional time or even that he never fully regains his previous form — would be an unmitigated disaster for BYU, on par with Hill's broken leg. As I've written previously, Collinsworth is so essential to everything the Cougars do — including supplying Haws with open looks — that any absence or reduced effectiveness from him would create a gaping void that cannot be filled. There's no one else on the roster who can conceivably do what he does. BYU's goose would be cooked.
That's why this is our No. 1 potential scapegoat heading into basketball season. We simply don't know what's going to happen with Colinsworth's surgically repaired ACL. All indications to this point have been positive — he's reportedly practicing at full speed and should be ready to play in Saturday's exhibition game against Seattle Pacific — but that's not a guarantee that everything will necessarily continue along that same trajectory. Things could change for the worse at any time, and if they do, every finger in Cougar Nation will reflexively point directly at Kyle Collinsworth's right knee to explain the inevitable aftermath.
And for once, they wouldn't be completely off-base.