Patrick Kinahan: Can close losses eventually lead to success for BYU basketball?

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PROVO — Gut-wrenching 1-point losses at home against two nationally ranked teams have added to the stark reality that the BYU basketball team needs an upgrade going into the Big 12 Conference next season.

Entering the final stretch of the regular season heading into February, the Cougars are mired in a three-game losing streak and are seventh in the West Coast Conference. Their fleeting hope to make the NCAA Tournament likely requires winning the WCC Tournament, which they haven't done since beginning conference play in 2011-12.

Looking at the positive, BYU was good enough to push then-No. 8 Gonzaga to the brink on Jan 12 before the Bulldogs pulled off a stunning 75-74 win. The Cougars led by 4 points and had possession with one minute left in the game before the offense stalled.

An improbable turnaround jump shot by a freshman with 1 second left in the game lifted No. 18 Saint Mary's to the 57-56 win last weekend. BYU was forced to play without three unwise men who were suspended for violating team rules and got only 2 points in an unusually low 14 minutes from leading scorer Rudi Williams.

"That's what's tough, is when you make a lot of progress and you end up with the same result," a disappointed coach Mark Pope said after the last loss. "That's where you've got to just keep fighting and push through."

Sitting at 4-5 (14-10 overall) with seven conference games remaining, the Cougars still go to Gonzaga and Saint Mary's before ending at home against San Francisco, which won the first matchup 10 days ago. BYU's best scenario for the postseason is to play in the National Invitational Tournament.

The top-heavy WCC pales in comparison to what awaits next season in the Big 12, which has six teams ranked in the top 15. Houston, one of the three additional programs set to join the conference, is ranked third.

Obviously, Pope and his staff have some heavy lifting to do to improve the program.

To begin, the missionary aspect of the program has always presented a challenge to BYU basketball, which often faces the difficult task of managing the roster with players going and coming off their church service. For a sport that relies on team chemistry, losing players for two years is a balancing act.

Former longtime assistant Tim LaComb compares it to "getting a brand new 2023 car you can't drive until 2025."

That's the reality for BYU virtually every season. Collin Chandler, a top 50 high school player out of Farmington, left on a mission last summer and three players returned.

With relatively little time to prepare after not playing serious competition for two years, freshman Dallin Hall was thrust into the starting lineup early in the season. The physical point guard has shown promise, scoring a season-high 23 points but missing a free throw in the final seconds in the loss to Saint Mary's.

"His resolve and his commitment and his obsession with getting better is pretty spectacular," Pope said. "You think about, he's carried a lot on his shoulders."

Going forward, Hall, along with fellow returned missionary freshmen Richie Saunders and Tanner Toolson, will be counted on to make the transition into the Big 12. BYU lists only two seniors — Williams and Gideon George — on the roster, but likely will lose others to the transfer portal, a practice that has dominated college basketball every offseason.

As has been the case in recent years, BYU likely will seek to bring in multiple transfers. The ever-optimistic Pope will be tasked with meshing the newcomers with the returning talent.

"The karma of this game catches up," he said. "If we'll keep pounding on this wall, we're going to break through."

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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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