Heading into their weekend meeting with St. Mary's, the BYU Cougars controlled a great deal of their own destiny, relative to the WCC regular season title chase.
Facing eight league games to finish the campaign, the Cougars knew that winning out would secure no worse than a two seed in the conference tournament, and winning out with St. Mary's losing one additional game (at Gonzaga, ostensibly) would secure a regular season crown and the number one seed in Las Vegas. It was going to be a hard road for the Cougars, but it was rolled out in front of them.
Saturday's 80-66 Marriott Center setback has all but dashed BYU's regular season title hopes, with the Cougars (18-6, 6-3 WCC) now dropping three games back of the front-running Gaels (21-2, 10-0 WCC) in the conference table. With only six games remaining on their fixture list, the Gaels are essentially in a familiar two-team tussle with Gonzaga for the conference championship, with all eyes on their Feb. 9 get-together in Spokane. BYU, meantime, still has a meaningful goal in sight: earn the conference tournament two seed and secure a bye to the tourney semifinals at the Orleans Arena. The easiest way to accomplish that goal: win out.
For those unfamiliar with the WCC Championship set-up, the league rewards the top two finishers with byes into the tournament's final four, with seeds 3 and 4 beginning play in the quarterfinals. Seeds 5 through 7 open play in the second round, while the bottom two seeds (8 and 9) play an opening round play-in game to advance to the second round.
Saturday's home loss to St. Mary's marks a couple of downbeat "firsts" in the Dave Rose era. BYU has lost three home games for the first time since Rose took over in 2005-06, and the Cougars have suffered consecutive home losses for the first time since the season before Rose's tenure began, with both facts serving to underscore how remarkably consistent his program has been over the last six-plus seasons--at home and on the road.
You can still count Rose's homecourt losses on two hands; his Marriott Center record of 99-8 means he'll likely reach 100 home wins before he reaches 10 home losses.
Rose's overall record of 177-51 gives him a 77.6% win rate--the third-best in NCAA Division 1, behind North Carolina's Roy Williams and Gonzaga's Mark Few. Note that Thursday's game at the Marriott Center will bring together the second- and third-winningest active coaches, by win percentage.
Back to Saturday's game against St. Mary's--a fourth consecutive game of poor three-point shooting for the Cougars. Since making 11 of 24 three-point attempts at San Diego and moving the season three-point success rate to 40%, BYU has made 11 threes in its ensuing four games, while missing 62 attempts. 11-for-73 checks in at 15%, so what in the heck is going on here? How does the 40% three-point shooting team become a 15% team over a four-game stretch?
Certainly, some of the explanation lies in the identity of the opponents. Loyola Marymount (BYU shot 2-for-25 on 3pfg) and Virginia Tech (5-for-24) are both in the top 15 in three-point percentage allowed, while St. Mary's (2-for-13) is in in the top ten in 3pfg attempts allowed per field goal attempts allowed. As Ken Pomeroy notes, the Gaels have been in the top ten in that particular category for eight straight seasons; there are few teams better at protecting against the long bomb than Randy Bennett's squad.
So, there's that.
Then, there are the concurrent individual slumps by a number of players. In the last four games, here is BYU's three-point shooting distribution, by player:
Matt Carlino is 2 for 21.
Brock Zylstra is 2 for 18.
Charles Abouo is 3 for 15.
Anson Winder is 1 for 8.
Craig Cusick is 1 for 4.
Nate Austin is 0 for 3.
Noah Hartsock is 1 for 3.
Damarcus Harrison is 1 for 2.
And there's your 11-for-73, with no one getting a hot hand at any point. Abouo was 2-for-4 at Pepperdine, and did account for BYU's only arc markers that night, but no one has been knocking down threes with expected regularity, and a lot of guys are trying.
Thursday opponent Gonzaga is a middle-of-the-road team in terms of three-point percentage defense, three-point attempts allowed and point percentage distribution on three-pointers; we'll see soon enough if the numbers start coming back around after the Cougars' particularly rough stretch.
BYU has endured a relatively strenuous schedule of late, with six games in fifteen days, no consecutive home games, and a cross-country trip sandwiched between conference games. Dave Rose has told me before that "we're a shot-making team," and when your legs go, your shot goes. BYU's legs have certainly been taxed in the last couple of weeks, so the break between the St. Mary's and Gonzaga home games (BYU's first consecutive home games since Jan. 7 and Jan. 14) may prove particularly beneficial to a team looking to get its groove back from distance.
Rose added on his Sunday night KSL 5 TV coach's show that with the current reliance on BYU's inside game, "the guys are kind of getting stuck, where they are watching, and not sprinting to (shooting) spots like we need to," and that has to change, but "most of it is just confidence; most of these shots are open, we have space," said Rose.
There was much attention directed at the officiating from Saturday night's game at the Marriott Center, mainly because some fans' displeasure with the officiating in the game had an impact on the game itself. Following a warning about debris being thrown on the court, a second occasion of paper-tossing led to technical free throws for St. Mary's, and contributed to the most crucial swing in the game, at the very start of the second half.
That a seemingly blown call precipitated the fan reaction is beside the point: once you've been warned by the P.A. announcer that further misbehavior will result in a technical foul and points for the opposition, a repeated infraction is plain stupid.
I don't attend too many games as a fan in the stands these days, but I grew up as a sporting spectator, and never once was I compelled to throw anything onto the playing field in anger or disgust. I've been angry and disgusted, but that's what vocal cords are for. BYU fans are still the best around, and I don't recall Saturday's situation ever having occurred before; this is not something that is cause for concern, beyond what it meant to Saturday's game. I do think it was unfortunate that St. Mary's first taste of conference competition in Provo may have been soured by the incident.
I am not saying fans didn't have a right to their displeasure with the officiating. It was inconsistent and calls were missed and/or botched on both sides. This can be said of most games, but I thought the overall quality of the officiating on that night was essentially poor, and I have probably found myself more mindful of the officiating this season than in previous years.
Part of it is having been accustomed to the group of officials in the Mountain West Conference and a general appreciation for the best in that bunch. The BYU players and coaches (and I) are still getting familiar with most of the WCC crews and they are in turn getting familiar with BYU, for the most part; perhaps conditions will improve over time. Saturday was not a banner night for the stripes, but to focus too much on their performance is to ignore the Gaels' performance, and how well they played in beating BYU.
Stephen Rogers made another brief cameo in Saturday's game, putting up one missed shot, committing a foul and a turnover in three minutes of play. His appearance v. St. Mary's followed three missed games, which came after four brief appearances that followed six missed games. Rogers' torn meniscus suffered in practice on Thursday, Dec. 15 may end up being one of the most crucial events of this season.
Rogers got hurt only two days before Matt Carlino was to make his BYU debut versus Baylor, and in the games preceding that Dec. 17 meeting, Rogers had been playing well; he averaged 11 points per game and hit eight of 20 three-point attempts in the four games leading up the Baylor contest.
Rogers was filling perfectly the role of bench fire-starter, and adding another starting scorer in Matt Carlino was only going to augment the scoring punch of Rose's team. But with the Rogers injury, surgery and resulting setbacks, we have yet to see how Rose's projected player rotation would have turned out.
Bringing Rogers (wing), Cusick (point) and Austin (forward/post) off the bench, Rose had the makings of a "top eight" that could give BYU a little bit of everything it would need to succeed. Chris Collinsworth's knee issue was also a major hit to BYU's projected personnel plans, but the Cougars have been dealing with that long enough to not depend on his return. Losing Rogers, and then not having him return to full health has been a a huge hit, and his absence has been felt on numerous occasions since mid-December.
Since his surgery to repair the meniscus on Dec. 15, Rogers has played a total of 35 minutes scattered over five games, and has made three of 12 shot attempts; one of six from three-point range. Rogers' knee may have been structurally fixed, but whether he came back too early the first time or is once again playing before he is really ready, Rogers' game is now in need of repair. He has not made an impact in a game in almost two months, and BYU's postseason hopes may depend in part on whether Rogers can make a full-speed return to the lineup at some point during the season's last month.
As an invested observer of the basketball program, I get the most frustrated over injuries to key players. Football injuries are almost always less of a concern; there are so many players to help compensate, rosters are so much deeper, and absences are more easily overcome. In basketball, where everything pretty much rides on the health of five to eight front-line players, injuries or other absences can so frequently rob a team of its potential. It is true that injuries simply mean opportunity for the next player in line. But on this year's BYU team, a healthy Stephen Rogers was going to represent a matchup advantage, a scoring surge and a veteran presence. There is no one like him to take his spot.
In a best-case scenario, Rogers recuperates in time to get conditioned and into a shooting flow leading up the WCC tourney in one month's time. The worst-case scenario is what BYU has already been confronted with, and filling the Rogers gap has on some nights worked better than others.
The day before the St. Mary's game, Rose said Rogers is "really trying to push through this and hopefully we can get him back here in the next week or two." The very next day, Rose said Rogers "wants to play," and indeed he did--for three unsteady minutes. Perhaps Rose was correct in his day-before-the-game assessment, that Rogers is still a week or two away. If that's the case, then BYU needs to get him healthy. Three minutes here and five minutes there do the Cougars very little good right now. If BYU is going to make a post-season push, Rogers' health can be a positive contributing factor. It would be nice if his recovery is fast, but more imperative that his recovery is full.
A little more about BYU's current offensive woes, and how they they are essentially all tied to BYU's three-point struggles:
Through the season's first 20 games, BYU made an average of 21.3 2pfg/gm. In the last four games, BYU has made an average of 20.3 2pfg/gm--pretty much in line with the average, and about what BYU expects to get in running its offense. Whereas BYU made an average of 8.0 3pfg/gm through 20 games, making only 2.8 3pfg/gm in the last four will put a dent in your point total, and as a result, BYU is scoring 70.3 ppg in the last four, compared to the 80.8 ppg preceding the three-point slump.
BYU has scored 77 points or fewer in four straight games, for the first time since early-to-mid January of the 2008-09 season. Not coincidentally, BYU also went 2-2 in that four game stretch, just as the 2011-12 Cougars have done in the last four games. Dave Rose's teams are built to outscore the other team, and three-point shooting is a significant part of that approach. The Cougars simply must bust out of a team-wide slump from the arc, because while BYU's inside duo of Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock is one of the program's best-ever up-front combos, those two can't do it all.
Davies has scored in double figures in 12 straight games, averaging 18 points per game and hitting 74% of his free throws in that stretch. During BYU's four-game three-point slump, Hartsock has averaged 21.3 ppg and has made 22 of 24 free throws (92%). BYU cannot ask for much more than it is getting from the front-court. Until and unless BYU's three-point shooters start making shots, life inside will get tougher for Davies and Hartsock; despite their currently stellar play, the Cougars' offensive progress has been stymied by lack of a perimeter punch.