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PROVO — As the most-experienced BYU basketball player to face West Coast Conference competition, team captain Luke Worthington had a message for his teammates on the eve of the Cougars’ WCC opener Thursday night against Portland.
In essence, it’s about to get real.
“It’s different,” said Worthington, who will lead BYU (10-2) at 7 p.m. MST Thursday in the Marriott Center. “Everybody knows everybody, so things are a little more ramped up. It’s not like an opponent that you’ve never faced before. They’ll definitely be ready to go every game.”
As arguably the least-experienced player to face WCC competition, junior guard McKay Cannon just smiled and nodded next to Worthington.
“I’ll just follow his lead because he’s got all the experience,” Cannon said with a laugh. “It’s a great conference, and I’m excited to be part of it.”
Cannon isn’t completely unfamiliar with the WCC, either. During his two years at Weber State, the Wildcats played Portland Pepperdine in non-conference matchups, so he got a closer look at the type of play presented by the nine other schools that will play BYU on a home-and-home basis in 2017-18.
“I think the WCC is known for a lot of skilled basketball players, players who can dribble and shoot,” he said. “It’s a very high-skill league.”
Of the healthy BYU players not named Worthington, six have been through a full WCC season. The list includes forward Braiden Shaw, who practiced in full for his second-straight day Wednesday and appears ready to return to the lineup on a limited basis, BYU coach Dave Rose said.
“He’s still got a little pain, so I don’t think he’s 100 percent,” Rose said. “But he’s ready to go, and looking forward to fighting through it.”
The experience is an added boost to the Cougars, who are still dealing with injuries to center Ryan Andrus and forward Dalton Nixon.
“The experience that Braiden has, being through the league a couple of times — there are a lot of things that he can help us with as we start the first few weeks in the league,” Rose said. “I’m glad he’s back with us.”
Gem State stopover
The addition of freshman Kolby Lee to BYU’s roster marks the fourth player from the state of Idaho on the Cougars’ roster. Lee, who was set to go on a two-year mission for the LDS Church this past summer, returned early and has enrolled in time for the winter semester at BYU.
Another Idaho native is happy to have him.
"He brings us depth, which is good, and another body to make us better," said Cannon, a native of Shelley, Idaho, a four-hour drive from Lee’s Meridian. "I’m a lot older than him, but it’s always nice to have someone from Idaho (on the team)."
Rose said the Cougars hope to redshirt Lee for the remainder of the season after an early return from his mission. But plans can change — as made evident by Cannon, who was ineligible by the NCAA until a waiver cleared prior to BYU's streak-inducing win at Utah Valley in November.
"He’ll get his feet wet with the guys, with whom he worked out this summer, so he knows them," Rose said of the 6-foot-9 Lee. "At this point, I think he’ll redshirt this year — but you never know what opportunities bring."
Eight to nine
BYU rides an eight-game winning streak into the beginning of conference play and can make it nine in a row heading into a crucial home showdown with WCC power Saint Mary’s on Saturday.
But Worthington still views the Cougars as a work in progress.
"We’re happy that we walked away with eight to end the non-conference play," the team captain said. "But we’ve got to keep building. We know that every day in practice, we have to bring it if we want to get to where we want to be. We understand all of our goals and what we want to do."