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PROVO — Every year this month they figuratively come out of nowhere — an unheralded bunch of teams that batter our brackets by reaching the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
Dayton is the latest dragon slayer, beating traditional powers Ohio State and Syracuse. Last year it was Florida Gulf Coast, whose best achievement had been having the head coach be married to a former super model.
And every year, like clockwork, BYU fans recite the following: If they can do it, why can’t we?
BYU’s basketball program does have a history of making the Sweet 16 every 30 years, as long as the national player of the year — see Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette — is on the team. With a few exceptions, the season ends without a tournament berth or a loss in the first round.
Even the BYU women’s team is a more frequent occupant of the Sweet 16 than its men’s counterpart. Jeff Judkins has coached the women to two Sweet 16 appearances in the last 12 years, with the most recent coming this season.
There’s a simple reason for the annual disappointment. Primarily, blame it on LDS missions.
Whereas the BYU football team can successfully negotiate and manage the mission program, it impedes basketball. The hope for any continuity is lost with the revolving door of basketball players coming and going every two years.
Sheer numbers exasperate the problem. With 85 scholarships available in a sport that doesn’t completely rely on high skill levels, Bronco Mendenhall can overcome losing a dozen or so players each season. Dave Rose isn’t as fortunate with the 13 scholarships at his disposal.
It's different for different guys for different reasons. The option (of serving first) will be out there everybody. It will be nice for guys to see what suits them best.
Although much different than most Division I programs, BYU’s football recruiting pool is deeper and stronger compared to basketball. It’s news each year if NFL teams don’t draft a BYU football player, while it’s the exact opposite for the NBA and BYU basketball.
For every returned missionary who loses his passion to keep the commitment to play football, coach Bronco Mendenhall usually has other competent options. For every Travis Hansen, who actually increased his intensity and improved his basketball skills after serving a mission, there’s a host of other BYU players who never met expectations after spending two years spreading the good news.
But is help on the way?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' decision to lower the missionary age to 18 might provide a huge benefit for BYU basketball. Ideally, BYU recruits will begin their church service right out of high school and return with all of their college eligibility intact.
If only it would be that smooth. The problem, no two missionaries are the same.
Some players took advantage of the lower age rule and left or will leave as soon as possible after the high school season ends. Others will still stick to the more traditional route of serving after playing one year, which was often the case when the minimum age was 19.
“It’s different for different guys for different reasons,” said BYU assistant coach Mark Pope. “The option (of serving first) will be out there everybody. It will be nice for guys to see what suits them best.”
The coaches would like each player to make a decision and then stick with it. It becomes a massive disruption when players reverse course or change departure intentions. But all BYU coaches realize the situation, which requires them to publicly support anything relative to serving a mission no matter the circumstance.
As such, they will find positives, as is the case of Eric Mika. Rather than serve out of high school, Mika played this past season and will go on a mission to Italy on May 14.
The center played a major factor as a freshman and should resume the same role in two years. The BYU staff thinks his one season will pay off in 2016.
“I think it’s going to be a huge benefit for Eric to play a year,” said Pope, a former NBA center. “He really got a feel for what it’s like.”
Looking back, Mika knows he made the right decision to delay serving a mission for a year. Putting a lifelong sport on hold for two years was tough, but he understands basketball will still be there when he gets back.
In the end, he needed time to sort through his thoughts.
“There were a lot of things going into of why I ended up staying for a year. This year was fun. It was the hardest year of my life, just because of how tough it is to play a college sport, especially basketball. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Mika said.
“Experience is everything, especially for me getting a feel for the game. Two years away I’m going to grow mentally, physically and spiritually. I’m going to get more steady in everything. Having that, plus a year of kind of feeling it out, is going to be real beneficial.”