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Paging Nate Austin: Diagnosing BYU's rebounding problem

The Cougars can't rebound consistently — and that's costing them games. Only one man can save them.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

BYU doesn't lose that many basketball games, but when they do, Cougar fans have no shortage of theories for why their team failed to triumph.

Sometimes it's because they took too many threes (although I would argue this is rarely the case, but that's a subject for another article entirely). Other times it's because the foul calls didn't go their way, and as a result, they didn't shoot enough free throws. But most of the time, it's because they just let their opponent score too many points.

BYU's defensive problems aren't new. The Cougars give up a staggering 74 points per game, ranking them 326th out of 351 Division I teams. That is not good. Anyone with a basic understanding of how numbers work could tell us that. The question, which remains largely unanswered, is why? Why does an otherwise very talented basketball team struggle so much to get stops?

Is it the players' execution? Is it the coaches' schemes? Is it because the Cougars simply lack the athletic capabilities to play passable defense? My two cents: It could be blamed on any or all of those factors at some point or another (except for maybe the lack of athleticism — I don't really buy that excuse), but this season, there has been a more specific and crippling problem that has wounded the team's defense and factored prominently into every single BYU loss.

Rebounding — or, in this case, a lack thereof. All of the other problems that people point to after losses are legitimate, and they have all cropped up in one heartbreaking defeat or another along the way, but none has proven as consistently problematic and predictive as the Cougars' general inability to rebound the basketball and finish a defensive possession.

A look at the numbers can illuminate this a little bit more. Using final scores and rebounding totals for each team in every BYU game this year, I created a scatterplot that matches up the point differential (on the Y axis) and rebounding differential (on the X axis) in each contest, then found the line of best fit to identify the relationship between the two across the entire data set. (Hooray for paying attention in Algebra 2!)

BYU Basketball Rebounding

So what does this chart tell us? It tells us that there appears to be a direct correlation between BYU's rebounding performance and its results on the scoreboard — and based on the fairly tight clustering of data points around the trendline, it appears to be a strong relationship.

In games where the Cougars secure more rebounds than their opponent (data points above 0 on the X axis), they are 13-0 — and their margin of victory grows considerably as they improve their rebounding margin. Conversely, in games where they lose the rebounding battle (data points below 0 on the X axis), they are 1-6.

The statistics seem to bear this out. In games they've won, the Cougars have also won the rebounding battle by 10.3 rebounds, on average. In losses, their opponents have outrebounded them by 7.7 rebounds, on average. That's quite a wide gap.

This is primarily a problem on the defensive boards. Grabbing offensive rebounds is important, but for BYU, it's not nearly as important as preventing their opponent from doing the same. Allowing an opponent to regularly have multiple bites at the apple on offense is a virtual death knell for any team, but it's especially bad for a squad with such well-documented defensive deficiencies. A better defensive team would be more likely to wring out another stop, even after gifting their adversary a second or third possession via offensive rebounds. But BYU? They're generally fortunate if they can force even one miss — so allowing an opponent more chances beyond that is tantamount to not just playing with fire, but effectively setting their own shorts ablaze.

As a team, BYU has controlled fewer than 75 percent of the available defensive rebounds in a game 10 times this season. They are 4-6 in those contests — including every single one of their losses. And it's getting worse not better: the Cougars have now secured fewer than 75 percent in each of their last four games, which has led to them being outrebounded by 1.8 rebounds per game and dropping two key WCC contests.

Most recently, they posted a dismal 13-rebound deficit in a tough road loss at Saint Mary's, where their top four post players combined for just two total boards. That's horrendous by virtually any metric — and it outlines the source of this persistent rebounding problem: None of BYU's available bigs have proven capable of securing a significant proportion of the available defensive rebounds while they are on the floor.

Of the four true posts in coach Dave Rose's current rotation, Isaac Neilson has been the best at 15.4 percent, good for fifth-best on the team — but that's not a particularly inspiring number, considering he's being outperformed by three guards. It drops off even more precipitously from there, with Corbin Kaufusi at 13.2 percent, Ryan Andrus at 9.4, and current starter Luke Worthington all the way down at 7.6 — lower than every player on the roster except Chase Fischer, who consistently plays 25 feet away from the basket. I'm not even sure how that's possible, but it's certainly not good.

So what's the answer? Based on what we've discussed so far, it's abundantly clear that BYU has a rebounding problem, that it has already cost them several games (and will likely continue to do so), and that the primary culprit is a lack of production on the glass from their post players. Is there a fix to all this, or should Rose just throw up his hands and hope Kyle Collinsworth can single-handedly outrebound opponents and keep his team in games?

Thankfully, it appears there may finally be a light on the horizon — and that light's name is Nate Austin. It's difficult to overstate how much of a blow the loss of Austin to a significant hamstring injury was to the Cougars' fortunes. When Nate went down, BYU lost their best post defender, their primary hustle guy and, lest we forget, one of college basketball's elite rebounding big men. Sports Illustrated didn't project him to be the nation's second-best rebounder for nothing. The dude can clean the glass with the best of them.

Despite his limited playing time this season, the stats validate Austin's reputation. He leads the team in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing 22.8 percent of the available defensive boards while he's on the floor. Compare that to the Fischer-adjacent 7.6 percent posted by his immediate replacement Worthington and you begin to get a sense of just how valuable Austin has become for this team.

Furthermore, in 11 games with Austin in the lineup, BYU won the rebounding battle by an average of 10.4 rebounds per game — but in the 12 games since Nate's injury, they have only won the rebounding battle by 1.25 boards per game. That's a significant dip, and it's difficult to point to any other cause than the absence of Austin and his team-leading 11.4 rebounds per 40 minutes played. He's a huge piece, and one that Cougar fans may not have fully appreciated until recently.

Dave Rose likes to play small — and understandably so. There's a lot of perimeter talent on this team, and it only makes sense for the Cougars to play to their strengths. Starting four guards gives BYU the most potent offensive unit in the country, but it also leaves them vulnerable against opponents with significant size inside — particularly when BYU's succession of lone big men can't rebound at a respectable rate. This dynamic creates extra possessions for opponents, places added pressure on the defense and, ultimately, results in more points surrendered and more losses sustained.

If Rose's smallball lineups are going to work on both ends of the floor moving forward, he needs his four guards rotating around an effective post player who can carry a large portion of the rebounding responsibility down low. Nate Austin is the only player on the roster who has proven capable of doing that — and no one else is really even close.

Austin has been targeting this Saturday's game at San Diego for his long-awaited return to the court. Cougar fans who are worried about their team's NCAA tournament prospects after the recent string of losses should pray the big man does indeed ride in on his proverbial white horse, fully healthy and ready to rebound.