SOMEWHERE OVER THE PACIFIC OCEAN — I'm sitting on a plane as I begin writing this (but not, I'm sure, as you are reading it), returning to the mainland from a glorious trip in Hawaii — one that was filled with so much sun, fun and (of course) hoops that I can't even begin to quantify it all. But as I sit here reflecting, 30,000 feet above the earth's surface, I'm going to try.
Because beyond just frolicking in the sand with my lovely wife, I also learned a lot during my time in Maui — my first trip covering a major sporting event as a credentialed reporter. Most of it was about this year's BYU basketball team, which suffered through a heartbreaking three days at the EA SPORTS Maui Invitational, but some of it wasn't. All of it seemed worth sharing — so here goes nothing.
1. Acting like you belong only gets you so far
I'm a firm believer that you can go almost anywhere and, as long as you walk with enough purpose and try to look like you're supposed to be there, no one will even bat an eye. Naturally, I attempted to apply just such an approach to covering my first big tournament as a credentialed reporter — just act like you know what you're doing and no one will know you're a rookie.
That lasted about two minutes.
After checking in and receiving my credential at the tournament office on the first day, I inquired about the location of the media room. The tournament staffer who had been helping me gestured vaguely over her shoulder. "It's through that door back there," she said. I thanked her, then strode confidently toward a door in that general direction without another word. I needed to look legit. So far so good.
The problems began when I actually walked through that door. Suddenly, I found myself in a very small storage closet, occupied by a bunch of extra cafeteria-style tables and two very confused-looking tournament IT staffers. I, too, was confused for a moment. This seemed like a rather small room to house all the media. After a minute or so, I eventually figured out what I should have already known — that I am an idiot.
I tried to smoothly play off my mistake by asking for the WiFi password, and the IT guys were nice enough to give it to me without making me feel any dumber than I already felt. And thankfully, I eventually found the media room. But just know that simply "acting like you belong" has its limitations. Very severe limitations.
2. And that also applies to basketball
Interestingly enough, the BYU basketball team also spent their week in Maui acting like they belonged with the big boys — and they actually fared pretty well. The Cougars hung with some very good teams — including taking No. 16 San Diego State to double-overtime (two days before the Aztecs would lose by just two points to No. 3 Arizona in the tournament's title game) and battling a very solid Purdue squad to the buzzer in another overtime game. For stretches of both those games, BYU looked like a legitimate Top 25 team.
Of course, just as I learned trying to pass for an experienced reporter, acting like you belong has its limitations — and the Cougars learned the same lesson, albeit on a much bigger stage and in front of many more eyeballs than in a small storage closet with a couple IT guys. BYU lost both those close games against good teams in heartbreaking fashion, despite being in a position to win both in the closing minutes. As much as they tried (and they did try very hard), they couldn't seal the deal. They aren't quite there yet. And they need to be there at least a few times over the next month or so in order to build their tournament resume. There's work left to do.
3. Tyler Haws is a miracle to watch up close
Seriously. That's not an exaggeration. Watching Haws operate offensively in the halfcourt is something beautiful to behold. Every movement is purposeful. Every decision is measured. Every shot feels pure when it leaves his hands.
Don't get me wrong, he's great to watch on TV too. But it's hard to really appreciate the majesty of what Tyler is doing night in and night out until you see him do it up close. Because only then can you really begin to understand how much physical abuse he endures, how much the opposition gameplans solely to stop him — and how much all of that doesn't even matter. He just transcends it all. He finds a way. He gets buckets. And it is truly amazing to watch him do it.
4. But nobody believes he can make it in the NBA — and maybe that's OK
Our very own Rachel Konishi (who joined me in Maui) wrote a great article recapping the thoughts of NBA scouts she spoke with about Haws' viability as a pro prospect. Go read that right now if you haven't yet. You won't regret it — it's really great stuff.
And as much as I wish Rachel and the scouts that she spoke to were wrong about Tyler's NBA prospects, I have to report that I heard much the same from the various scouts and other basketball personnel I either spoke to directly or overheard while in Maui. There's just not much belief that Haws can make it at the highest level.
That's not to say these people don't like him or think he's a special player. They do. I sat next to Fran Fraschilla — the former St. John's and New Mexico coach turned college basketball and NBA draft analyst for ESPN — during the second half of BYU's game against Purdue, where Haws was seemingly raining fireballs from the sky in the hope of single-handedly keeping his team in the game. (He succeeded.) Both Fraschilla and an NBA scout with whom he was primarily conversing sat in awe of Haws' shot-making ability. As Tyler continued to make plays of increasing difficulty, both were visibly excited by what they were witnessing — and told me as much. The words "special player" were mentioned multiple times.
The problem is, as special as Haws was that afternoon and will continue to be every night for the rest of the season, none of the "basketball professionals" I encountered in Maui felt he could duplicate that at the next level — for all the reasons mentioned by Rachel in her piece. (Seriously, read it.) And while I'm sure Tyler wants to prove them all wrong (as he should), maybe watching a "great college player" should be enough for us as fans right now. Maybe we shouldn't spend so much time thinking about what comes next. Because we have a collegiate legend right before our eyes — and contrary to recent BYU history, those don't come around all that often. We should savor him while we can.
5. Kyle Collinsworth's knee is fine
Prior to the Maui trip, after watching Collinsworth stumble through a couple generally unimpressive performances, I tweeted out some very small kernels of concern about how close BYU's starting point guard was to fully recovering from his offseason knee surgery (physically and, more importantly, mentally) and how soon he could realistically be expected to play at a high level. Several folks immediately responded by taking me to task for being insufficiently patient and overly jittery. They told me not to lose faith, that there was still plenty of time for Kyle to find his footing.
They were right, of course. And they were only proved even more correct when Collinsworth showed up in a big way in Maui — especially when his team needed him most. Fighting an uphill battle to get back in the game against a Top 25 team with an elite defense and your offense is stagnating? No worries. Kyle Collinsworth will just completely take over for a few minutes, orchestrate every facet of the game and inject some life back into your team and fans. Done. Simple as pie.
After looking so unsure of himself and his body in the opening games, Kyle looked completely confident in his play during all three games on the island — and BYU was better for it. If this trajectory continues, both Collinsworth and the Cougars should be in very good shape by the time conference play rolls around at the end of the month.
6. But he's not an "ambi-turner"
As great as Kyle Collinsworth is at so many things on a basketball court (and he's great at a lot of stuff), there's one thing he just can't seem to do — shoot with his left hand. I don't know why. I don't know how he's gotten this far without learning this. I don't know if it's just a recent development. I don't know anything. But every time he attacks the basket from right to left, he ends up shooting with his right hand.
This often results in a more difficult shot, which the defense is more easily able to contest and (usually) block. Simply using the left hand (which allows the ball to be shielded by the goal and, potentially, his right/off hand) would seem to fix all of this in most circumstances. But he just can't seem to get it — which always brings me back to this...
7. BYU still can't defend
The Cougars lead the nation (by a wide margin) in scoring offense, averaging 95.7 points per game. That's an insane level of firepower for a college team playing 40-minute games. Those are almost NBA-like offensive numbers — and they play a whole eight extra minutes! Put simply: You shouldn't lose college basketball games if you score nearly 100 points every time out. You just shouldn't. It's a really hard thing to do.
Now contrast that with the fact that BYU has already lost two games to good teams and struggled to overcome a couple other vastly inferior opponents. Why is this? After all, this is the best offensive team in the nation! They're scoring nearly 100 points per game! No one should lose when scoring 100 points per game!
The problem? They're still managing to give up 77.1 points per game — good for 324th in the country in scoring defense. For comparison's sake, there are only 345 teams that play Division I hoops. In other words, BYU is in the 10th percentile of college defenses. That is so bad on so many levels.
It's not a whole lot prettier in person. The one thing I will say is that the guys do try hard. The effort is there — but the execution (to borrow a Bronco Mendenhall-ism) is horrifically lacking. The players are almost all busting their butts, but they always seem to be busting their butts in the wrong direction or to the wrong spaces or in an attempt to make the wrong play. And that ends up costing points. Lots of them.
I don't have all the answers, and this is certainly a topic better suited for a more in-depth exploration than can be afforded here. But just know that the defense is bad — really bad — and it looks just as horrific close up as it does on your television.
8. Dave Rose has depth to burn, but he doesn't trust it (yet)
A lot has been made in the early-going about the depth on this BYU roster. After all, there are 15 players on the roster. That's a lot, in and of itself. And some of the "walk-ons" are actually legitimate scholarship players suffering from bad timing and an overflowing recruiting pipeline, which would seem to indicate a deep saturation of talent not seen in Provo in recent years.
But depth is something we talk about in September and October — when there's nothing to play for and everything is rosy. You tend to find out how deep you really are when you get into November and December and start playing real games against real teams that require real strategy and personnel to get real wins that really matter in March. That's when the rubber hits the road.
BYU faced that test in Maui — and Dave Rose didn't seem to think too much of his team's alleged depth. In the two biggest games of the tournament (San Diego State and Purdue), four players — Haws, Collinsworth, Chase Fischer and Anson Winder — played 69 percent and 68 percent of the team's available minutes, respectively. That kind of playing time distribution isn't necessarily a hallmark of a "deep" team.
Now, it bears mentioning that Rose really wanted to win these games, and he obviously pulled out the stops to try to do so — including heavily relying on his experienced upperclassmen on the guard line. And that's fine. But this was when the chips were down — and Rose didn't feel that comfortable rolling with his bench (outside Winder, who is a bench player in name only). There's nothing wrong with that at the moment, per se — it is early, after all. But we should at least acknowledge that the coach does not particularly trust this team's "depth." At least not yet.
9. Rose sees Jake Toolson as a weapon
Like most of his bench-mates, Jake Toolson didn't get much burn in Maui. But when he did, Rose ran several offensive sets designed specifically to get him a shot.
The coach's explanation, following the Chaminade game:
We called a few sets for Jake Toolson because we're trying to get Jake going a little bit. He played really well the last couple games at home, but a lot of this tonight was just guys penetrating, moving the ball, finding each other, and Chase just got loose.
There's been some question as to how much of a role Rose saw Toolson playing on this team. I'm firmly on the record as believing he could be a valuable bench scorer, if handled correctly. Rose's comments seem to reflect that belief. You don't specifically try to jumpstart someone you're not intent on using — so I think it's safe to assume the Cougars have plans for Jake Toolson, if they can get him there.
10. Chase Fischer made his mark on the casual fan
As we made our way through the security checkpoint at Kahului Airport to start our voyage home, something in one of my wife's bags triggered TSA's ultra-sensitive detection machines — and then proceeded to do so on three subsequent scans. Naturally, this turned into a 45-minute ordeal that involved unpacking every single carry-on bag we had, scanning each item individually, and subjecting my wife to a series of pat-down examinations.
I mostly just sat there during all of this, largely because she was (by total chance) the one carrying the offending bag, even though it could just as easily have been my stuff in there. That doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to me, but I've now learned that, when it comes to TSA policy, it doesn't have to.
That's not the real reason I'm sharing this anecdote though. While I was waiting for things to run their course, with five different TSA agents swarming in every which direction, one younger agent who seemed to be overseeing the process struck up a conversation with me. He noticed my BYU sweatshirt and asked if I was in town for the tournament. I told him I was.
"Man, you guys have that great shooter," he said. "That guy is amazing!"
Let's pause for a second: Whenever a casual college hoops observer (or even a particularly passionate one) happens to know the identity of a BYU player, I always assume he or she is referring to Tyler Haws — especially if it's a shooter. It's only natural. He'll probably end this season as the most prolific scorer in school history. Haws is generally a safe assumption.
"Yeah, he's really great," I responded.
"What's his name again?" the agent asked.
"Tyler Haws?" I offered helpfully.
"No, no, that's not it," he said, shaking his head. "It was... Fischer! Yeah, that's right. Fischer! I watched the Chaminade game. That guy can shoot!"
And thus, Chase Fischer, who has played a grand total of seven games in a BYU uniform, surpassed Tyler Haws, the most prolific scorer in BYU history, at least in the eyes of one casual observer. And I'm sure he's not alone.
This may seem a bit ridiculous (and it is), but I suppose it's also somewhat reasonable — if you only watched one BYU game a year (or maybe ever), and in that game Chase Fischer made 10 threes and Tyler Haws sat on the bench the entire first half in foul trouble, you'd think he was the team's best player by a wide margin. You would be wrong, but you'd at least be justified in that belief based on an extremely small sample size.
Looks like Fischer made his mark.
11. Anson Winder may be the X-Factor
Take a look at Winder's per-game averages from last season:
16.7 minutes, 6.5 points (53.9% FG, 40.3% 3PFG), 1.8 rebound, 1.3 assists, 0.6 steals
Now check out his numbers through seven games this season:
24.6 minutes, 14.3 points (57.6% FG, 56.5% 3PFG), 4.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals
Wow, wow, wow.
BYU was always going to need someone to step up this season and fill Matt Carlino's production on the guard line once he exited to Marquette. Chase Fischer has provided a good deal of that punch, but no one on the BYU team (save perhaps Tyler Haws) has been more essential to this team so far than Anson Winder.
He's essentially picked up right from where he left off at the end of last season, when he started seeing increased minutes and took on a more prominent role. He's getting more time (as you'd expect in his senior campaign), but his explosion in production far outpaces any argument that his improvement might be due only to an increase in opportunities. Winder is simply playing exceptionally well — on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, he's been a revelation. He's shooting the ball with amazing confidence right now, and while the mechanics of his jump shot still worry me a bit, they're going in at a 56.5 percent clip at the moment, so who cares? Kevin Martin has one of the goofiest strokes in the NBA, but he does it the same way every single time and the shots go in at a high rate. It doesn't really matter what it looks like.
But just as important as Anson's shooting has been his ability to consistently get to the rim, both in transition and in the halfcourt. On paper, BYU lacks a dominant penetrator (and has, essentially, since Michael Loyd, Jr. left town), so this is a role Rose has desperately needed to fill for awhile — and Winder has more than stepped up. If he continues to be a threat to get by defenders and attack the basket, opponents will have to play the Cougars more honestly — all of which will open up better perimeter looks for the likes of Haws and Fischer. Everybody wins.
And then there's defense. BYU's struggles on that end have already been litigated here. Winder is really the only guy on the squad who can play reliable man-to-man defense against a quality Division I guard. His lateral quickness and good instincts make him an absolute bulldog up top — a reality that was only reinforced for me after watching him hound guys all over the court for three days. As bad as the Cougars' defense has looked so far, it would look way worse without Anson shoring up the first line.
If Winder continues to play at this high level, BYU will continue to be very difficult to beat moving forward. Sure, a lot of question marks still remain, particularly down low and on defense. But Anson Winder is single-handedly making up for a multitude of sins right now.
12. It's really, really hard not to cheer in the press box
You're not supposed to cheer on press row. It's, like, the cardinal sin of sports journalism. I assume they summarily execute you if you do it. (And by "summarily execute you," I mean refuse to give you any more credentials. Same thing, right?) But here's the thing: If you're a team blogger like myself, who's not required to maintain any kind of impartiality as part of my job here at Vanquish The Foe (and, in fact, is discouraged against it), this can be really hard.
There were several instances when BYU would make a big play and I would instinctively go to clap and yell — only to quickly realize that would be incredibly inappropriate, forcing me to stifle the yelp in my throat and awkwardly pass off my nascent clap as a really aggressive self-administered hand massage.
It didn't help that I was seated next to BYU hoops' incomparable sports information director Kyle Chilton and the Cougars' excellent radio team of Greg Wrubell and Mark Durrant — basically the only guys who can get away with openly cheering on press row, due to the nature of their jobs. In the interest of not accepting responsibility for my own professional difficulties, I'll just blame all of this on them.
But as hard as it was not to cheer, it was still a fantastic opportunity to be on press row for those three games. I got to see the nuances of the gameplay up close and personal. I got to see and hear and learn things that I would not otherwise have been able to learn had I simply watched the games on television. I got to observe the BYU press corps — some of the best in the business — do their thing in real time and, by so doing, figure out how to do my little job here better. And I got to sit next to Fran Fraschilla, which was one of the best, most insightful basketball educational experiences I've ever had — all in the course of a single half of hoops.
But most importantly, I got to see the Cougars play exceptionally hard and scrap their way through three exceptionally entertaining basketball games in as many days. Sure, I'd have preferred a different outcome in two of the three contests, but beggars can't be choosers — and hence, I have literally nothing to complain about. I was in Maui, after all.