Okay, let’s be honest. I’m starting an article about BYU (8-2) with a talk about Gonzaga. But I think that’s important for a couple reasons. One: I really want to annoy the Iowa fans that were in the mentions the other day, so, Who-ka Garza? That’s right, I went there. I want ASMR of him being beat on defensive possession after defensive possession to play over the sound Hawkeye fans hooted and hollered about “BEST PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY CAN’T STOP HIM” en route to a convincing loss to the Zags. Ah, it really is the little things in life that make you the happiest.
Two: Discussing any West Coast Conference team, especially tournament contenders, has to come with the caveat that Gonzaga looks by far and away like the best team in the country, and it’s hard to fathom anyone beating them in the WCC this year barring freak acts of God, which might actually work to the benefit of noted Latter-day Saint institution BYU. So, this entire discussion about “how does BYU make the tournament” happens through the lens of “well ignore Gonzaga, they’re the prohibitive favorites for the auto-bid, what’s the at-large path for teams like BYU, St. Mary’s, Pepperdine, and San Francisco?”
With that in mind, let’s talk about a team making waves (no, unfortunately, not a Pepperdine pun) in the WCC and who looks like legitimate at-large bid contenders: the BYU Cougars.
BYU owns one of the most impressive mid-major resumes to date. They have only two losses to their name: an overwhelmingly “MEH” showing on a neutral court against a USC (Trojans, not Gamecocks) team that looks like it will contend for a tournament spot out of the Pac-12 and a very fine loss to a really good Boise State team, even if it was at home in Provo.
The wins outweigh the losses. The Cougars own wins against St. John’s on a neutral court, against Utah State in Logan, and a convincing home win against Utah. As an aside, BYU has Weber State scheduled and also owns a win over Utah Valley. That leaves Southern Utah and the inexplicably-named Dixie State University as the only D-I programs in the state of Utah that BYU will not play this year. Assuming they beat Weber State, they should try and schedule Dixie State and Southern Utah if only to get the in-state sweep and ownership of the state.
Anyways, the piece de’ resistance of the BYU non-conference slate was a win over then-ranked San Diego State in Viejas Arena. A Q1 road win that most likely will only age well as San Diego State runs through its conference like a bull in a china shop is something many teams would kill for this year. And it wasn’t just a stolen win at the buzzer or anything; instead, BYU led by 15 at the half and, despite an Aztecs run in the second period, the Cougars came away with a 10-point win. That is definitely nothing to scoff at and discount. This Cougars team is the real deal.
The calling card for the Cougars this year has been balance. While there are some weak points in both the offense and the defense, there’s not a wild disparity between how good one or the other is. BYU has a nice mix of size, speed, and playmaking on both ends of the floor, starting 5-foot-11 point guard Brandon Averette alongside 7-foot-3 Purdue transfer Matt Haarms, which combines a good shooter with an efficient-inside-the-3-point line big who has the ability to alter shots (for the love of god, don’t look at Matt’s 3-point shooting numbers — it’s not good). BYU is a top-80 offense and a top-70 defense. That’s pretty good, and honestly, for the level of competition BYU will be facing in the WCC, it’ll put the Cougars near the top of the standings come end of the season.
The offensive heartbeat for BYU is Alex Barcello. According to KenPom, he’s got an absurd offensive rating of 128.0. He’s shooting over 63% from 3 and has top 25 numbers in the country in eFG% and true shooting percentage. That’s pretty absurd. Oh, and, for kicks, he’s got a top 100 assist rate, too. He is the first name on the scouting report for opposing teams, and it’s pretty easy to see why. As mentioned above, it’s hard to imagine not winning everything this year, including all of the personal awards for conference play, but Barcello might be the most valuable player to his team, and I would support his candidacy for WCC Player of the Year alongside the six Gonzaga players that will eventually get nominated (and honestly, it’s probably Jalen Suggs’ award to lose). But even if he doesn’t take home hardware, he’s still that valuable of a player to the Cougars.
Like every week in this column, we have to look at the bad with the good. And there are two MAJOR weaknesses in the offense. One: the turnover rate is abysmal. Like, close to bottom 100 bad. Four starters have turnover rates at or over 20%, and two of them are over 28%. Y I K E S.
Not what you want from a team laden with seniors in important, ball-handling roles. Digging into this a bit more, a full 50% of the team’s turnovers come off of steals. The team is a bit too careless, and it’ll come back to haunt you more often than not. Thankfully, the WCC only has one team in the top 100 in defensive steal rate (Gonzaga, to zero surprise), so one would hope the Cougars’ inability to hang on to the ball will not be punished as harshly as it could.
The other no-good, very-bad thing: BYU is pretty bad at getting to the free throw line. It’s not that shocking, as they tend to be more of a jump-shooting team, but not getting to the line and combining that with being a very mediocre free throw shooting team means a few things.
One: points are being left on the floor, and BYU isn’t generating these extra opportunities.
Two: they’re not getting opposing players in much foul trouble. I know sample sizes game by game are unique, but if you can’t keep your opponent’s best players off the floor, they tend to come up big in late game situations. If BYU can improve in this department, I have no doubt they’ll be a tough out come March.
With Weber State (3-2, 1-1 Big Sky) on Wednesday, Dec. 23, being the last matchup before conference play, BYU looks ready to compete for an at-large bid. I think their resume warrants it. Very few teams will have an away victory at a team of the caliber of San Diego State.
Many teams will have much worse losses than USC and Boise State. Win the games you’re supposed to win in conference, pick up a few away victories at tough opponents like St. Mary’s and Pepperdine, and sit back and relax while your name is called on an eight or nine seed line on Selection Sunday. In any other conference, we’d be talking automatic-bid territory for the Cougars. Unfortunately for the faithful, Gonzaga exists, but that shouldn’t preclude this team from comfortably being in come tournament time.-