Mid-Major Top 20 Preview: BYU Cougars

Jonathan Daniel

BYU gave away a chance at having a season to remember in its first year in the West Coast Conference. So much of what held back the Cougars were the turnovers by the top possession players. Can the Cougars improve their ball handling and pull together their top talent to have a consistently good season?

On paper BYU's first season in the West Coast Conference looked like a success. With 26 wins, including an NCAA Tournament victory, most teams would walk away thinking things went pretty well.

But that isn't the case at BYU, where conference championships in the Mountain West were the norm. Finishing third in the WCC behind Gonzaga and St. Mary's, including double-digit losses to both teams didn't help.

That was the thing with the Cougars. Every time they looked as if they had turned the corner on the season, and were ready to roll without a glitch, things just fell apart against the top teams in the conference. During the year, BYU had made it into the top 15 in the MRI, our computer ranking system, and were there as late as mid-February. It just turned out to be unsustainable.

The talent was definitely there, led by Brandon Davies, who turned in the most valuable performance for the Cougars last year. That he scored a 4.6 on the HOOPWAR scale while turning the ball over 100 times (and almost 20 percent of his possessions) is impressive.

That wasn't the case for Noah Hartsock, BYU's leading scorer last season, and the second most valuable on the team (3.6 HW30). Hartsock is gone, as is Charles Abouo (3.4 HW30). Losing them means losing the anchors of the Cougar offense -- the two most efficient scorers and the two players who didn't have turnover issues.

In a way that shows the vulnerability of BYU, a team that actually did fairly well holding onto the ball over all. But the top player on the team value-wise acted as if the ball were made out of bacon grease rather than leather at times.

This was also the case with point guard Matt Carlino. The former UCLA guard turned the ball over more than 22 percent of the time, not exactly the performance you would want from your floor general.

Maybe that all will change this year as the two top players will be a bit older and more mature with the ball (Carlino looks as if he has improved based on the exhibitions). They will also be joined by mission returnee Tyler Haws, who had a fantastic freshman year before leaving for two seasons (123 ORat, 2.3 FC/40, and a 62% True shooting percentage). Haws should be able to step right into the starting shooting guard spot, or swing out to the wing, and help to provide stability on the outside for the Cougars.

That is the thing about the starting lineup for the Cougars, they all have that stability of having worked within the system. This is a team that has the experience to succeed on the court if they can just put it all together. A win over Gonzaga last season should have shown that; it just wasn't repeatable.

Between Davies on the inside, and Haws and sharpshooter Brock Zylstra on the outside (37.6% 3PT), this is a team that can beat you in multiple ways. That doesn't even go to mention all of the young players that are coming in to help with the depth on the squad.

Every one of the additions could add help immediately behind Raul Delgado and Craig Cusick.

Yes, on paper this could be another strong season for the Cougars, but these games aren't played on paper. Projecting that success last season didn't always work for BYU when faced with the top WCC teams (or even the bottom ones like Loyola Marymount). It remains to be seen if the Cougars can live up to the obvious potential of the players on the floor.

Bottom Line: Dave Rose has assembled a winning combination at BYU, but the inconsistency by the top possession players in holding onto the ball should cause some pause among fans.

It looks like some of the issues have been ironed out ove the summer and in the exhibitions, but until there is a real opponent out there for the Cougars we can't be sure.

Right now, the talent should have BYU right there with Gonzaga and St. Mary's again this season, and it is entirely possible that they have enough to pass the Zags for the second spot in the league.

With a little good fortune, BYU could even challenge St. Mary's for the top spot in the conference, although the all-around depth and talent for the Gaels might prove tough for either the Zags or Cougars to counter.

That said, this team should be headed back to the NCAA Tournament, and should begin with a better fate than an opening round game.

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