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Patrick Kinahan: Reliance on transfers catching up to BYU basketball

Brigham Young guard Richie Saunders (15) drives past Utah Valley guard Justin Harmon (0) at BYU in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 7,  2022.

Brigham Young guard Richie Saunders (15) drives past Utah Valley guard Justin Harmon (0) at BYU in Provo on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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PROVO β€” Having already guaranteed the worst nonconference record during Mark Pope's four years, the BYU basketball team's chances at making the NCAA Tournament probably will require earning the West Coast Conference's automatic berth.

Yeah, good luck with that, considering the tournament in Las Vegas virtually has become the birthright of Gonzaga. BYU has no WCC Tournament championships since joining the conference in the 2011-12 season.

Gonzaga has nine tournament titles during BYU's tenure in the conference, only losing twice both times to Saint Mary's. The Cougars have four losses in the finals to Gonzaga.

Through 11 games heading into a practically guaranteed win this week against Western Oregon, BYU is plodding along with a 6-5 record that included consecutive losses to South Dakota and Utah Valley before rallying in the final seconds to beat previously nationally ranked Creighton last Saturday.

Pope's prior worst nonconference record was 12-4 in his first season (2019-20), but the Cougars rallied to finish 24-8 and would have made the NCAA Tournament that was canceled due to COVID.

Given the missionary program that usually significantly impacts BYU basketball, Pope needed time to work his recruits into the program. Two freshmen, Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders, are back from their two-year missions and are showing promising for the coming seasons.

BYU, which has made 20 appearances in the NCAA Tournament dating back to the 1986-87 season, has a history of player development in the program. In Pope's first season after succeeding Dave Rose, several seniors with experience led the team to a third-place finish in the Maui Invitational and a win over second-ranked Gonzaga.

The team had an excellent mix of returned missionaries (T.J. Haws, Zac Seljaas, Dalton Nixon and Connor Harding), veterans (Yoeli Childs and Kolby Lee) and transfers (Jake Toolson and Alex Barcello).

"Those were guys that became difference makers in this program because they were developed in that program," said former BYU coach Steve Cleveland during his weekly radio appearance on The Zone.

In succeeding seasons, Pope has chosen to rely heavily on one-year transfers to bolster the roster. The philosophy has produced mixed results with little continuity and room for development.

The strategy may have caught up to BYU this season without a dramatic turnaround. Maybe it's time Pope back off the quick fix in favor of leaning toward individual improvement over time.

Despite losing the bulk of the talent, the Cougars made the NCAA Tournament in Pope's second season and lost in the first round to eventual Final Four participant UCLA. Barcello, who transferred after two seasons at Arizona, joined fellow transfers Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette as the best players.

The problem was Haarms and Averette played only one season at BYU, forcing Pope to again hit the transfer portal. One-and-done guards Te'Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight played big minutes on last year's team that reached the NIT quarterfinals.

Along the way Lee, Harding, Caleb Lohner and Blaze Nield transferred out of the program. Harding and Nield played for Utah Valley, which owns a two-game winning streak over BYU.

This year's team has three new transfers playing significant minutes. Rudi Williams and Jaxon Robinson, who between them have played on seven different college teams, are averaging 26.3 and 27.1 minutes a game. Noah Watterman, who is on his third team, is playing 16.5 minutes a game.

Robinson and Watterman have eligibility beyond this season, but there's no guarantee either will return. Knight, who played 22.7 minutes a game last season, stayed at BYU one season before transferring to Illinois State.

Recognizing the win-now mentality that permeates all of college and professional sports, BYU might be best served to build for the future if the NCAA Tournament becomes an out of realistic reach. Freshman Tanner Toolson joins Saunders and Hall as new returned missionaries and others are in the pipeline.

"These are guys that are going to need to be developed," Cleveland said. "Dallin Hall and Saunders are playing right now and contributing and doing good things, but it's kind of up and down. But I think you take an opportunity to find a balance as you put a team together, especially with this many new players."

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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