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7 unanswered questions for BYU basketball

With the start of practice less than a week away, unknowns abound for the Cougars.

Ethan Miller

Can you hear that?

No? Try again. Listen closely.

That. Right there. Off in the not-so-far distance. Approximately six days away. Do you hear it now?

That's the sound of basketballs bouncing. College hoops season is almost upon us.

But as we enter the final week of the offseason and prepare for BYU's first practice on Monday, we still don't know all that much about this Cougar team. Even with nearly every player on the roster returning, questions linger everywhere on the floor and on both sides of the ball.

Dave Rose and his staff will begin to find answers in the coming weeks as they dive into the work of preparing their squad for competitive action — and as they do, it will be helpful for us to understand some of those key questions.

1. How healthy is Kyle Collinsworth's knee?

This is the most important question hanging over the Cougars' 2014-15 season by a country mile. It's impossible to overstate how essential a healthy Collinsworth is to this BYU team. While Tyler Haws has certainly done a lot to earn his distinction as the team's best player over the last couple years, Collinsworth may be the most vital cog in Rose's machine — he does virtually everything and makes everyone else better, especially Haws.

If Collinsworth can't play right away or begins the season with severely limited mobility, it will be a huge blow to the Cougars, who again start the season with a very tough nonconference slate in November and December. They simply must have him on the floor, facilitating for Haws and others, helping bang on the boards, and shouldering an increased portion of the scoring load. If Kyle can't do that, it could be a rocky start to the season — but if he can, this could be a special one.

2. How much more can the Cougars lean on Tyler Haws?

Haws has done everything that's been asked of him and more during his storied career at BYU — and yet it never feels like he fully gets the credit he deserves. Let's be clear: Haws very well may be the best scorer Provo has ever seen. At bare minimum, he's one of the top two. Barring an unfortunate injury or the aliens from Space Jam coming down and sucking up all his talent, he will almost undoubtedly become the leading scorer in program history at some point during the upcoming season. So let's be sure to give Tyler his proper due before considering the following question: Can we really expect him to do much more?

Haws has shouldered an incredible offensive load the last two seasons. He led the West Coast Conference in usage percentage at 29.4 percent in 2013-14. He drew the opposition's best defender and the lion's share of their defensive focus every single night. And he still averaged 23.2 points per game, good for sixth in the country. That's incredible. But with Matt Carlino gone and Collinsworth's health still questionable, the Cougars may have to ask their star player to shoulder even more of the offensive load. And as amazing as Tyler Haws undoubtedly is, it's worth wondering whether that's a request he can realistically fulfill.

3. Who will replace Matt Carlino's lost production?

Love him or hate him (and there's a good chance it's the latter), Matt Carlino played a large role on last year's squad. He was second on the team in points and first in assists and steals per 40 minutes played. He was the Cougars' primary ball-handler, even after being moved to the bench. And he was likely Rose's most aggressive perimeter defender, showing great improvement from previous years as he wreaked constant havoc in the passing lanes.

To be sure, Carlino also had his share of flaws (and potentially a very sizable share, depending on who you talk to) that helped hasten his exit from Provo — but there's no denying that his absence leaves a sizable hole to be filled. Who is ready to step in and fill those controversial shoes? After all, 13.7 points per game isn't something to sneeze at. There will be plenty of candidates, but someone is going to have to step up and give Rose that third option alongside Haws and Collinsworth if BYU wants to keep opponents honest.

4. Can Chase Fischer break the transfer curse?

Transfers haven't fared so well at BYU in recent years. This truism particularly applies to allegedly "dead-eye shooters" brought in to give the Cougars some additional perimeter punch. Raul Delgado, Agustin Ambrosino, Skyler Halford. All were advertised as serious marksmen who could help restore BYU to the trey-happy nirvana of the Jimmer era. All fell demonstrably short of that promise. Sure, there have been other, more successful transfers in other roles during that time (Craig Cusick being the most notable), but there's no denying that Rose just hasn't struck gold on any of the shooting specialists he's coaxed to Provo over the last few seasons.

Enter Chase Fischer, the latest savior of the Cougars' 3-point attack. There's no doubt Fischer can shoot it. His high school exploits in West Virginia are the stuff of legend, and even though things didn't quite work out at Wake Forest, he proved that he can consistently hit shots at the Division I level. Even as his minutes decreased over the course of his sophomore season in Winston-Salem, Fischer still managed to connect on 42.2 percent of his long-range bombs. BYU, a team that shot a depressing 35.5 percent from distance last season, desperately needs some of that Appalachian magic. Let's hope Fischer can be the one to finally break the transfer curse and help Rose and company right the ship.

5. How will Rose manage a severely overstocked roster?

I don't know if you've heard or not, but Dave Rose is essentially suiting up a small army this season. Consider this: There are currently 17 players on the BYU roster who are eligible to play in 2014-15. Several are scholarship players who are paying their own way because a scholarship wasn't available due to unforeseen circumstances. Last year's squad only had 12 total players, and two of them were walk-ons who are no longer with the team. Talk about a 180-degree turn.

The depth problem of 2013-14 seems to have been mercifully eliminated and then some — but that raises new difficulties for Rose and his staff. Obviously they won't be playing all 17 players. That's simply not feasible. Someone is going to have to sit, and a few may need to redshirt in order to preserve eligibility. The question, as always, is who? True freshman Ryan Andrus and recently returned missionary Jordan Chatman have both had their names bandied about as potential redshirt candidates in certain corners — but nothing will be certain until they roll the balls out for practice next week. That's when the jockeying begins in earnest. It should be an interesting process to watch.

6. Will BYU finally figure out how to defend at a high level?

Scoring has never been a problem for BYU. Rose's teams love to run and gun, and they put a ton of points on the scoreboard as a result. This approach generally works out pretty well for them. They win far more games than they lose. However, it doesn't always work out — and when it doesn't, it's often not because they didn't score enough points themselves, but because they gave up far too many on the other end. Case in point: the Cougars gave up 77.3 points per game in 2013-14, worst in the WCC. Yikes.

As noted, this indifferent approach to defense hasn't stopped BYU from being a good team. They've beaten good teams. They've duked it out with Gonzaga at the top of the conference. They've made it to the tournament. But one still gets the feeling that, until the Cougars truly commit to defending at a high level on a consistent basis, they won't be able to take that next step — they won't be able to become elite.

Contrary to popular belief, this isn't a personnel problem. BYU has the athletes — many teams with lesser talent manage to play competent defense on a nightly basis. It's a mindset problem. It's a focus problem. It's a priorities problem. The Cougars care first and foremost about offense. They want to run fast and score a lot of points — and that's fine. It's served them relatively well. But until they make a commitment to the defensive end of the floor (and until players are held directly accountable for failure to execute appropriately), BYU will likely struggle to beat elite teams on a regular basis. The coaches undoubtedly understand this and desire improvement — but it remains to be seen whether this is the year they can finally change the culture.

7. Who will separate themselves from the pack in the post?

In the Dave Rose era, BYU has been a primarily perimeter-oriented team on the offensive end of the floor. This likely reflects the realities of Rose's preferred run-and-gun style of play, but it also says something about his available personnel. Despite the presence of a handful of talented big men like Trent Plaisted, Brandon Davies and Eric Mika, the Cougars have usually lacked depth up front. For the past decade, once the primary post option picked up a couple quick fouls, there weren't many big bodies with legitimate skill on the bench to fill in. Hence, Rose's teams have historically relied heavily on dynamic guard play to paper over any deficiencies on the block. It's a smart strategy, if not the optimal one — but coaches have to do their best with the players they've got.

On its face, this season's batch of big men looks different than in years past. For starters, there are more of them — the roster boasts five players that stand taller than 6-foot-10, the most since 2007-08. Considering the foul trouble-induced headaches Rose has suffered in recent years, just having more big bodies to throw out there when necessary can be incredibly helpful. However, it should be noted that it's also important how skilled those big bodies actually are — and this remains to be seen.

Cougar fans know what they're getting with a few of these guys. Nate Austin gives you all-out effort and hustle on every single play, no matter what. While he might be limited offensively, he's the heart and soul of the team and brings so many intangibles that you're guaranteed to see him in the starting lineup for virtually every game he's healthy enough to play in — and probably some he's not. But past Nate, there's a whole bunch of question marks. Is Jamal Aytes capable of providing a low-post scoring presence the Cougars sorely lack? Can Luke Worthington make enough of a jump offensively to match his quietly stellar defense from a year ago? When the lights go on and the refs show up, can Corbin Kaufusi turn himself from a summer open gym all-star into a legitimate Division I player? And who is the mysterious Isaac Neilson? Nobody knows quite yet, but the prospect of a more well-rounded squad hangs in the balance.

These questions and many more will undoubtedly be addressed over the coming weeks and months. And while there's a lot of uncertainty surrounding this BYU team right now (with much of it residing somewhere near Kyle Collinsworth's right ACL), there's also a ton of excitement and potential. If things develop the right way, this could undoubtedly be a special season for the Cougars — they've just got a few questions to answer first.