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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 5 BYU Cougars

Does BYU finally have what it takes to snap its NCAA Tournament drought?

NCAA Basketball: West Coast Conference Tournament-Saint Mary’s vs BYU Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

2017-18 Record: 24-11 (11-7 West Coast), 6-seed in the NIT
Key Returning Players: Yoeli Childs (Jr. F), T.J. Haws (Jr. G), Jahshire Hardnett (R-Jr. G)
Key Losses: Elijah Bryant (G), Payton Dastrup (to Oregon State)
Key Newcomers: Gavin Baxter (No. 284 2014 247 composite), Nick Emery (rejoined team), Connor Harding (No. 203 247 composite)

Let’s play some Mad Libs. BYU fans should probably look away; you’ve heard this story before.

BYU was picked to finish No. (number 1-3) in WCC yet stumbled a bit in the non-conference against (a beatable mid-major), but beat (a Power-5) and carried a winning streak into conference play. As expected, BYU lost to (Saint Mary’s/Gonzaga), but also dropped games against (a sub-par WCC team) to take them out of the conference title race. But the tandem of (underclassman) and (upperclassman guard) performed well, as the former nearly averaged a double-double and the latter shot (number greater than 35)% from three. Although the Cougars made a deep run in the WCC Tournament, they ultimately lost to Gonzaga and secured a (number between 1-8)-seed in the NIT. All in all, Dave Rose’s Cougars won (number in the twenties) games last year, setting up what should be a(n) (adjective) 2018-19 season.

See below for answers.

Key Non-Conference Games

Head Coach Dave Rose has had enough of the “soft scheduling” gripes. This season, BYU plays eight teams that should be conference contenders, travels to four likely NCAA Tournament teams (Nevada, Illinois State, San Diego State and Mississippi State) and only hosts two 300-level KenPom teams.

Nov. 6 @ Nevada
Nov. 28 @ Illinois State
Dec. 8 vs. Utah (in Salt Lake City)
Dec. 22 @ San Diego State
Dec. 29 @ Mississippi State

Three Things to Watch

Will the Cougars stay balanced?

This might come as a surprise to casual college basketball fans, but BYU’s days of utilizing a one-dimensional, guard-centric attack might be over. For the first time since 2012, BYU’s defense (No. 54) was ranked higher than its offense (No. 110) per KenPom’s rankings because the Cougars slowed down the offense and involved strech-forward Yoeli Childs more often. This move might not have fully paid off last season, but a more balanced approach could be the difference-maker now — especially as guard Nick Emery serves a nine-game suspension to start the season.

In fact, BYU’s frontcourt might be the most dangerous unit on the roster. The aforementioned Childs nearly averaged a double-double (17.8 ppg, 8.7 rpg) in his All-WCC First Team campaign. Flank Childs with freshman Gavin Baxter, a limby 6’9 forward with an NBA-esque 7’2 wingspan, and redshirt freshman Kolby Lee (former ESPN four-star recruit), and the Cougars could be versatile enough to go toe-to-toe with Gonzaga’s trio of Rui Hachimura, Killian Tillie and Brandon Clarke.

Can Yoeli Childs be BYU’s third WCC Player of the Year in the past six seasons?

Childs is an absolute beast. The rising junior has been one of the WCC’s best scoring, rebounding and blocks leaders despite playing against bigs like Przemek Karnowski, Jock Landale, Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie for the past two seasons. But this season should be his best yet. To the chagrin of opponents (and the delight of NBA scouts), Childs is even getting more comfortable from beyond the arc, adding yet another weapon to his loaded arsenal.

Averaging a double-double isn’t out of the question for the 6’8 forward, who is must-see television in a competitive mid-major conference. No player will be tougher to guard than Childs; he’ll be invaluable if the Cougars want to threaten Gonzaga for the WCC crown.

Will BYU make it back to the NCAA Tournament?

To say Rose has faith in this year’s team would be an understatement: He believes this year’s team has what it takes to make the NCAA Tournament.

Now that goal sounds all well and good, but it’s not new. Rose said the almost same thing at BYU’s media day back in 2015...

“It is a really competitive league,” Rose said. “We won four out of five championships in the Mountain West, and we’re 0-4 in this league. So the challenge is obviously really good. We’re looking forward to trying to break through here.”

..then repeated himself to the BYU Universe in 2016...

“We want to win the regular season championship. We want to win the conference championship and get to the NCAA tournament and advance as far as we can,” Dave said.

...and again in 2017...

“I think there’s no question the goal for this group is to get back to the NCAA tournament,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “In 12 years as a head coach, this is the first time we’ve experienced back to back years without going. These guys have worked hard and kept their head down with their goal in sight.”

Since getting bounced in the First Four by Ole Miss in 2014-15, BYU’s journey back to the NCAA Tournament has been near-Sisyphean.

Despite having the second-highest men’s basketball expenses in the conference, state-of-the-art facilities, commitments from the fabled “Lone Peak Three” and a bunch of 20-win seasons, the Cougars have found new and exciting ways to miss the NCAA Tournament. For every Gonzaga upset, they fill the “bad losses” column against WCC bottom-feeders like Loyola Marymount, Pacific or — gasp — Pepperdine. And even though the Cougars have beaten their fair share of PAC-12 schools in the non-conference, BYU has rolled out cupcake-filled non-conference schedules that keep them trapped in NIT purgatory.

Pushing the boulder uphill certainly won’t be easier this season. Yet thanks to talent and fortuitous timing, this year’s team might have what it takes to break the cycle. Saint Mary’s will regress. BYU’s schedule looks promising. The Marriott Center is still one of college basketball’s toughest venues. Childs, Haws and Emery are three of the most talented players in the WCC. Considering how many advantages this team has on paper, saying this should be the year BYU returns to the NCAA Tournament isn’t too outlandish. In the end, Rose will probably be right: This will be the team that ends BYU’s NCAA Tournament drought.

And if not, this junior-heavy team will always have next year. That boulder isn’t going anywhere.

X Factor

Junior guard Nick Emery’s career seems like it’s been memorable for the wrong reasons, whether it be for punching a Utah player, cussing at Gonzaga fans, or accepting Lumineers concert tickets and a new Volkswagen Jetta from a booster. But after taking a leave of absence last season, Emery has returned to Provo for a shot at redemption.

Emery has been absolutely electric on offense. The onetime Lone Peak star averaged 16.3 ppg and connected on 38.3% in his freshman season, but experienced a bit of a sophomore slump in 2016-17. Now that former teammates Kyle Collinsworth, Chase Fischer and Elijah Bryant have moved on, Emery might be the go-to guy in the backcourt. He’s stronger at the rim than T.J. Haws, is more athletic than Jahshire Hardnett and still has NBA-range. If the Cougars want to go far, then they’ll need Emery to channel his younger, more consistent self.


Correct answers: 3, UT Arlington, Utah, Saint Mary’s OR Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount OR Pacific, Yoeli Childs, Elijah Bryant, 41.5, 6, 24, capricious