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Looking Back: Observations from BYU basketball's roller coaster 2014-15 season

The pain may still be fresh, but it's time to review the Cougars' simultaneously historic and uneven season.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It's been a few days, but I think I'm finally ready to do this.

Let's talk about BYU's basketball season — rationally.

As difficult as the ending was to stomach — marred by an incomparable meltdown of epic proportions on a national stage — the truth remains: This was actually a pretty good year for the Cougars.

Sure, I'd prefer they didn't decide to go down in a hail of self-inflicted bullets in the NCAA Tournament. And yes, I'd much rather BYU not be a national punchline for a week or two. But all things considered? When you think about where this team and, by extension, our expectations were a month ago?

All in all, it was a pretty great run.

Here are a few observations I gathered along the way.

This was one of Dave Rose's best coaching jobs

Think about it. He had a fatally flawed roster that had been hammered by injuries. He had essentially zero serviceable big men, and nobody who could lock down an opposing perimeter scorer. His team had lost virtually every close game they played, including several to lackluster opponents in conference play. By the beginning of February, everybody — fans and pundits alike — had basically written the Cougars off.

And yet, when Selection Sunday rolled around, there they were — in the bracket.

A lot of that credit goes to Rose. When his team could have given up and packed it in for the year, he somehow managed to get them to pull together. He re-tooled his squad on the fly, mixing and matching lineups until he found what worked. He nurtured the growth of a talented-but-raw big man in Corbin Kaufusi, who figured out how to play the game at exactly the right time. And ultimately, all these pieces came together to fuel a manic, season-ending hot streak that ultimately propelled BYU right into the tournament — a place most felt would be impossible for this team to reach just weeks earlier.


Tyler Haws is an all-time great

Even with all the petty Internet arguments about his "clutchness" or his "legacy," Tyler Haws transcended the noise. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest players to ever put on a Cougar uniform. Full stop. No ifs, ands or buts about it.

Consider this: By my rough calculations, there have been at least 250,000 Division I college basketball players in the history of the game. Approximately a quarter of a million people have stepped on the floor at this level. And only 19 of them have ever scored more points than Tyler Haws.

Let that sink in for a moment. Try to comprehend the gravity of that accomplishment.

Divorced from everything else — all the arguments,  all the backbiting, all the never-ending comparisons — Tyler Haws is great because he's done things that nobody else has. Not at BYU and, with a few notable exceptions, not anywhere else either. No matter how many conference titles or tournament games his teams may or may not have won, his individual brilliance should never be questioned.

It was a pleasure and an honor to watch him play the game with my alma mater's name across his chest — and I'll savor the memories for years to come.

Kyle Collinsworth is a revelation

It's fairly notable when there's an all-time Top 20 scorer on the floor and yet everyone pretty much agrees that there's a possibility he may not even be the best player on his team.

That's the power of Kyle Collinsworth.

I'm not going to reiterate his statistical accomplishments here. You've heard them all before many times. It was truly a season for the ages — like his teammate Haws, unmatched by virtually anyone who has ever played the game.

And yet, I can't help but feel that his statistical prowess barely begins to tell the tale of Collinsworth's impact. Yes, he scores, distributes and rebounds. But more than all of that, he leads.

I realize that's a fuzzy, touchy-feely thing. Stat-heads like me don't normally talk in such subjective terms. We want to quantify the game as much as possible. But there's no getting around the fact that — even beyond his insane numbers — Kyle Collinsworth is essential to this team for the confidence and resolve that he brings to the floor, whether or not the ball is in play.

Oh, and the triple-doubles are pretty great too.

Defense is important

And here's where I take a break from gushing about the sheer wonderfulness of the performances from BYU's coach and its stars to come plummeting back to earth.

Because as incontrovertibly great as Rose and Haws and Collinsworth were individually, the Cougars were collectively just as incontrovertibly awful on the defensive end of the floor — and ultimately, it cost them. Big time.

There were a number of reasons behind the second-half meltdown against Ole Miss in the First Four. The offense slowed down as the Rebels turned up the heat. Shots clanged and turnovers abounded. But nothing was more to blame than BYU's utter disregard for anything even remotely resembling defense.

The numbers tell the story. Ole Miss scored a mind-boggling 62 points in the second half. Thirty of those points came in the paint, and 16 in transition. They grabbed 16 offensive rebounds over the course of the game and took 22 more shots than the Cougars. They got 16 points off second-chance opportunities in a game they won by 4.

There's no getting around it. That's a truly dismal defensive performance on virtually every level.

And it may be somewhat excusable if that was an uncommon occurrence — but it's not. BYU is, quite simply, not a good defensive team. They haven't been for a few years now.

That's not to say that they can't be again. They can. They were among the best defensive teams in the country just a few seasons ago. It's not a talent issue. It's not even a scheme issue. It's a commitment issue. Defense is an afterthought.

I don't know whose job it is to fix that mindset before next season. It probably falls on a few people, both players and coaches. But regardless of who carries the torch, the facts are clear: Even with historically great offensive talent, BYU was repeatedly undone by a collective unwillingness to commit on the defensive end. And until that very basic focus changes, it's unlikely the Cougars will truly be able to rise up to the next level.

The future is still bright — but not without question marks

I'll have more to say about this in a separate article in the next few days, but it's worth touching on briefly here.

BYU fans have long been pointing to the not-so-distant future, prophesying of a time when the basketball program would be stocked full of top recruits and ready to take on the world. And they're not necessarily wrong about that.

After all, the future is bright and those recruits are coming. In fact, they begin arriving next year with the debut of Nick Emery, and will continue with the return of other top talents from missions for the following season. That is all very much still happening — and it's worth being excited about.

But at the same time, glory and success are not assured for any man — and particularly not for a group of men who insist on only playing one side of the floor. So despite the embarrassment of riches lingering just over the horizon, philosophical question marks remain. How can Rose be sure to best maximize all that talent?

The answers will start evidencing themselves next season, and it could be a challenging one. Gone will be Tyler Haws, Skyler Halford and Anson Winder — three of BYU's five top scorers — and that kind of production won't be so easily replaced. Kyle Collinsworth will return as the unquestionable team leader, and he'll need to expand his offensive game to carry the scoring load as the Cougars' primary option. Filling the shoes of a legend like Haws is no small feat.

And it doesn't stop there. Chase Fischer will need to find some added measure of consistency from the outside. Newcomers Kyle Davis and Jamal Aytes will need to step in alongside an improved Corbin Kaufusi to bolster BYU's suspect frontline. And Nate Austin will need to finally get healthy enough to make the defensive impact he was expected to bring to this year's squad.

There are questions all over the court, but there is also a wealth of talent with which to answer those queries. It will be up to Dave Rose to again stitch together a cohesive whole from the considerable parts at hand. And given the quality of his recent handiwork, I'm excited to see him try it again.