The Cougars are counting on the emergence of the most unlikely of heroes to save their season, and it’s barely December.
This was supposed to be the year that BYU got back where it belongs. After three straight trips to the NIT, it seemed the Cougars were ready to head back to the big dance. We had them ranked No. 5 in our preseason poll. I pegged them as the number two team in the WCC behind only Gonzaga. Now I have them sitting in seventh.
They’re No. 81 in KenPom, the third lowest they’ve been at any point in the Dave Rose era. The Cougars are 5-4 on the season and in the midst of a three game losing streak. And that could very well stretch to four after a seven-win Utah State team visits the Marriott Center on Wednesday.
So, how did we get here?
For years now Dave Rose has run an uptempo offense. It’s been the Cougars’ calling card. Since joining the WCC for the 2011-12 season, the Cougars have finished in the top-ten nationally in adjusted tempo, per KenPom, every season except last year. The slowdown last season brought some success. The Cougars were a very good defensive team for the first time in ages. But this year, they’re back to the run-and-gun.
And it’s not working. At all.
In years past, BYU found success with this style of play because the Cougars had the pieces needed to make it work. In 2011, Jimmermania swept the nation. BYU was more than that, though. Sure, Jimmer was raining threes on everybody. But Jackson Emery poured in nearly a hundred of his own. And inside the Cougars had Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies. There was balance.
In recent years the Cougars haven’t had a duo like Jimmer and Jackson, but they’ve always had enough shooters to keep defenses honest. They don’t have that this year. Through nine games the Cougars have gone 62-219 from long range. That’s 28 percent, which ranks outside the top-300 in the country.
That’s really bad.
It’s even worse when you’re playing the style that the Cougars play.
BYU averages 76.5 possessions per game, which is top-20 in the nation, while taking an average of 24.3 threes per game. That’s a third of their possessions, and they’re making them less than a third of the time. Meanwhile, everyone else is taking and making more threes than ever — thank you, Steph Curry.
Even in this day and age, you can be a bad three point shooting team and survive. But you can’t be a bad three point shooting team that plays uptempo and survive. The Cougars are giving teams that can and will shoot threes even more opportunities to shoot them during a game. BYU’s strength is points in the paint. The team as a whole is shooting 57% inside the arc and often ends up riding on the back of Yoeli Childs (22 points per game).
Childs and the Cougars can do work at the rim, this is true. But when you can’t hit threes, yet insist on taking a lot of them, and give your opposition more opportunities to take (and make) threes, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. You’re not just trading buckets; you’re trading threes for twos and that will never add up to a win — unless you’re playing teams ranked below 150 in KenPom, which are the only teams BYU has defeated this season.
And this program certainly aspires to be a lot more than that. Fortunately, there is hope.
Enter, a strange savior
Nick Emery returns from his nine game suspension on Wednesday. The junior has made 172 threes on 38% shooting over his career. Two years ago, he and TJ Haws — who is currently averaging just under two threes per game — poured in 75 and 76, respectively, over the season.
If Emery’s return sparks the Cougars shooting, things should turn around. Not all is lost — even after this disastrous start. There are still games against Utah and UNLV on neutrals, and San Diego State and Mississippi State on the road, before the start of WCC play. The Cougars haven’t picked up a truly bad loss. Should they pick up a few quality wins, the at-large conversation can start up once again.
This is a strange situation for the highly-touted-turned-troubled Lone Peak product. Emery threw a punch against Utah as a freshman. As a sophomore he called Saint Mary’s McKeon Pavilion a high school gym, and then promptly lost in it. He then sat out last season due to personal issues. And, oh yeah, he’s never technically won a game for the Cougars because of impermissible benefits he received, which led to starting his junior year on the bench for nine games. What’s that Jerry Tarkanian quote about Kentucky and Cleveland State?
And now, his three point shooting might just save his legacy and salvage the Cougars’ season. Talk about a turnaround.
He’ll be put to the test in game one. Utah State’s two point percentage defense (38.2) ranks fourth in the nation. The Aggies strength goes right against BYU’s best asset. There could not be a better time for BYU to break out of this shooting slump.
If the Cougars pull this off, I say they build a statue of Emery outside of the Marriott Center. Just make sure he doesn’t get anything in return for the use of his likeness. Too soon?