Cougars' stretch run starts with a stumble

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One month and one day ago, the BYU basketball team was flying high.

The Cougars had just earned an 82-64 road win against a potent Santa Clara team, holding the Broncos to their lowest point total of the season. The victory was BYU's fifth in a row, and improved the Cougars to 4-0 in the West Coast Conference.

"That was probably the best game we've played (in league competition)," says head coach Dave Rose of that win. "We made great defensive plays; we made really good offensive plays that were within the flow and context of our game. And from there, we've hit some tough times…"

Indeed, since that win on January 12th, the Cougars have gone 4-4, including losses in their last two games, at San Diego and home to San Francisco. In three of the four defeats, BYU gave up sizable leads; in the fourth (at Gonzaga), the Cougars were never in the game. The first of the four setbacks was a last-second gut-punch from St. Mary's star Matthew Dellavedova.

BYU is now 1-2 to start February, which has historically been Rose's best month of the season; in seven previous campaigns, his teams compiled a record of 42-7. Before this season, only once under Rose had BYU lost twice in a single February, and never in back-to-back games. The Cougars have now also lost consecutive games on two separate occasions this season-—a first-time occurrence under Rose.

BYU has lost multiple home games and multiple conference home games in consecutive seasons for the first time since BYU had five consecutive such seasons from 1995-96 through 1999-00. BYU has lost consecutive league games for the first time since January of 2009. The Cougars' four losses in 12 conference games are the most through 12 league games since 2009, and Rose has never lost more than four conference games in any season.

Clearly, the Cougars are struggling at a bad time of the year, but the fact that the current dip is so rare testifies to the consistency of BYU's performance under Rose.

BYU Record Under Dave Rose, Through 12 Conference Games

SeasonConference12-game recordFinal conference recordConference finish

BYU's slump has for the time being burst the Cougars' NCAA Tournament bubble. An 18-8 record, with an RPI dropping to the low 60s, has taken BYU out of every bracket, with the slimmest of threads keeping the Cougars in some "Next Four Out" groupings. A lack of marquee wins, combined with last week's two "bad losses" have the Cougars and their fans facing an unfortunate reality.

"I think that we're in a really tough situation, to not win that (conference) tournament and get an invitation to (the NCAA Tournament)," said Rose this week. "So, to keep that six-year (NCAA) string alive and make it seven years, we're looking at trying to win this conference tournament. This year, like every year, it's a huge challenge--but this year especially, when the team that's leading the league hasn't been beat yet."

"But we've got (WCC-leading Gonzaga) coming into our building here in a couple of there's a lot of basketball to be played, and the (conference) tournament always gives you a chance."

For BYU to have a chance in Las Vegas, the team could use a second wind that the schedule may actually afford the Cougars. Rose's club has played 12 conference games over six weeks, without a bye; every other WCC team has already had at least one, and in some cases, two byes.

The only WCC school located outside the Pacific time zone, BYU has had five Thursday-Saturday home-road or road-home turnarounds--the most of any league team, with no other school handed more than three such scenarios. St. Mary's was given two, and Gonzaga only one. BYU has only a single Wednesday-Saturday swing on its schedule, the same as Gonzaga, while the Gaels got three Wednesday-Saturday weeks in league play.

Rose called the five quick home-road/road-home turnarounds, with air travel in between days, "a lot more difficult to manage. I thought that Wednesday-Saturday was great, but to play Thursday-Saturday feels way different, to try to manage that."

BYU's two byes will come in the final three weeks of the league schedule, so even though a home game with Utah State has been added to that portion of the slate, the Cougars will get a little extra time to shore up the lineup and get bodies ready for the conference tourney.

The WCC fixture list has been a physical grind for BYU, for heavy-minute guys like Tyler Haws and Brandon Davies, in particular. The Cougars' leaders in minutes played have understandably been the focal point of opposing scouting reports, and the game plan has been to bang those guys at every opportunity.

"We've kind of had a target on our back," said Rose, "as far as teams really wanting to kind of set a tone about how we're going to be played when we're in league. You watch film and you see game plans against other teams, and then they really go after a couple of our guys. A lot of that might be because they can see maybe a lack of depth at some of those positions and they really feel that they can frustrate a guy. A lot of it could be just the fact that we depend (primarily) on a couple of guys, too."

"I'd love to have more balance on our team, but it just hasn't worked out that way."

To that point, the newcomers on this year's team have simply not been in the picture during conference play. Of Raul Delgado, Agustin Ambrosino, Cory Calvert, Ian Harward and football cross-over Bronson Kaufusi, none is averaging more than four minutes per game in their league appearances, and the group has a combined 20 DNPs in WCC competition. The quintet has produced only 35 points over 12 conference games, while combining to shoot 34% from the field.

BYU Newcomers in Conference Play

Agustin AmbrosinoJunior1111.23.540%60%100%
Raul DelgadoJunior751.03.620%13%100%
Bronson KaufusiFreshman1021.04.167%N/A67%
Cory CalvertFreshman660.84.329%0%100%
Ian HarwardFreshman (R)660.01.50%N/AN/A

Last Saturday's home loss to USF featured freshman point guard Calvert playing for only the fourth time in the last nine games, and Rose acknowledged the handling of his new players when said "those are some of the things that you look at, going back…that you got caught up so much as a staff in individual games and how the flow of those games is going that you didn't give some of these guys a long enough chance to maybe get the experience that you need and you need them right now."

"But for the most part you just make slight adjustments--you can't re-invent your team right now."

Rose says adjustments will focus on getting back to playing team basketball—particularly on the defensive end.

"Our team is playing really hard, but I don't think we're playing together as a group as well as we need to," Rose said. "Defensively, we need to execute our system a lot better. We have a lot of guys who are trying to make individual plays in that system, that are causing us some real issues when we get breakdowns. We are really inconsistent in our effort on rebounding the ball. Offensively, we play in spurts, and we don't play with a steady flow throughout the entire game. The key for us is to consistently play at a level that we need to play at, to be successful in games, and not have droughts. Most of the droughts are execution droughts, not effort or non-scoring droughts."

"I really believe that one of the strengths of our program is that guys play for each other, and they don't want to let each other down. I think that we've got some guys right now who don't realize how important it is to fulfill their assignment on each possession, because the way our team's put together, if you don't do that, you're letting down your teammate."

The way BYU's team is put together, the Cougars' Big Three (Tyler Haws, Brandon Davies and Matt Carlino) must lead the way. When all three are "on" at the same time, BYU is extremely tough to beat. When all three struggle simultaneously (12-for-40 shooting against San Francisco), the Cougars are extremely vulnerable, even when role players contribute, as was the case against the Dons, when Brock Zylstra scored a season-high 18 points and the bench contributed 24 points-—BYU's second-highest substitute total in league play.

"That will be our challenge," said Rose about moving forward down the stretch, "to get our guys that we really count on to be good all the time, and to get them some help consistently throughout the lineup. We think that we can really improve this team, if we can find the right buttons to push."

Now in its second season as a WCC member, BYU is finding the push to the top of the league as tough as it was in the Mountain West Conference. Rarely would BYU lose to teams below the Cougars in the MWC standings, but so far this season, two of BYU's pursuers have already claimed wins, while last season, a home loss to fourth-place finished Loyola Marymount kept the Cougars from contending for the league crown.

"It's every bit as hard to win games in this league as any other league I've ever played in," said Rose. "I've coached in high school, I've coached in junior college, and now Division I, and I will promise you, if you ask any coach in the country 'what's the toughest league in the country to win?'…they'll tell you it's the league they're coaching in."

"It's a real challenge," says Rose of life in the WCC. "Obviously, the top of this league is as good as anybody in the country, and the rest of the league is as competitive as anywhere I've seen."

With his team currently hanging on to the conference's three seed, Rose says a primary concern down the stretch is to make sure the Cougars stay in the top four, secure a pass into the league tourney quarterfinals and avoid having to play in the Thursday night Second Round sessions. Such a drop would have been inconceivable a couple of weeks ago, but a lot has happened since that January night in Santa Clara.

"Things can change quickly; really quickly," said Rose. "They can change for the good quickly, and they can change for the bad quickly, and I think our guys experienced it. Where we were last week, coming off the two big wins, and where we are today after a difficult just have to believe that things can change back for the good really quick if you can get on top of it."

As noted above, BYU has been 8-4 in league play twice before under Rose, and in both of those seasons, the Cougars "got on top of it"—-they finished out their league campaigns by winning out in both seasons, ending at 12-4. Such a finish is possible in 2013, but Rose knows his guys will need to unite and focus like never before.

"Anybody that's on a streak on the wrong side of the ledger," says Rose, "you worry about your confidence, and your team being able to stay together. Anytime you get into something like this, there are so many different ideas of what the problem is… and you try to get to the point where it's 'okay, guys, let's all believe in each other, let's all believe in the staff; this is the direction we think we need to go. Let's all get in that thing, then have some confidence and get back on the winning track.'"

"Hopefully the guys will kind of find their spirit and catch all the important things that are still left to play for."

The Cougars will first play for a win versus Portland, Saturday at the Marriott Center. Bigger games await, but for a BYU team that has never lost three straight games within the same season under Dave Rose, just getting back on the right side of the ledger is the most important thing on the Cougars' to-do list.

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Greg Wrubell


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