Ben Criddle: BYU basketball's most valuable addition may not be who you think

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PROVO — Brandon Dunson had no direct connection with BYU, nor with new Cougars men's basketball coach Kevin Young. But after a quick, yet impactful, introduction, the former Stanford assistant coach feels he fits in perfectly with both.

Dunson was on his way to accept a new coaching position elsewhere at the same time BYU announced Young as its new coach. He had just finished his second season coaching for the Cardinal, but with the dismissal of Stanford coach Jerod Hasse following the 2023-24 season, Dunson was left without a position.

But then an unexpected call came from Young, which changed Dunson's course considerably.

"My first conversation ever with him was the day he got the job," Dunson said. "I was actually going to finalize a job with another university later that week, but he called me that day, brought me in that night, and we had our first face-to-face meeting the next morning in Phoenix."

After a very brief, albeit immensely impactful introduction, Dunson forged a strong connection with Young immediately.

Good vibrations

The coaching world, like most everything else, relies heavily on productive networking. And though Dunson and Young had drawn no direct connections with each other through their respective coaching careers, they did have similar connections — perhaps most notably Young's brother, Justin Young, who is a national expert on basketball recruiting.

Although Dunson doesn't know to this date how much or even if Justin Young was involved in recommending him to the BYU coach, whoever did knew they shared a lot in common.

"We just kind of vibed and I loved where his vision was going, and I loved everything that he was about," Dunson said. "And we had a lot of co-workers — former co-workers and friends — that we both respected that have known both of us, and … it just checked out on his end, and it checked out on my end, and I think we just really vibed together."

Several things stood out to Dunson in the interview process, but it was Young's character that perhaps stood out most.

"A lot of it had to do with his personality and his humility," Dunson said. "A lot of people come in from the NBA and think the college game is going to be easy. He had a completely different approach, in that he wanted some college guys with him to make this transition and he had a lot of respect for it."

Young's approach, as explained during the interview process, worked hand-in-hand with Dunson's own.

"He wants to win championships and he wants to develop (professional players), but he wants to do it the right way," Dunson said. "He's not a win-at-all-costs guy, and that's how I kind of am, too. I have values. … I am a big process-oriented guy, and I feel like he is, too, and that leads to success."

Dunson's pride

Many coaches get caught up in the direct results of basketball, with regards to wins and losses; and while that aspect holds great importance, for obvious reasons, it's the process through realizing those wins, and other forms of success that Dunson values most.

"Being able to say that I impacted their lives in a positive way — that's the most important thing to me and the thing I'm most proud of," Dunson said. "The wins, the championships, the guys that went to the NBA — that stuff's all great, but knowing that I had some impact on these guys … that's the thing I'm most proud of. I love the game of basketball, but I love impacting people more."

It's an approach to coaching that Dunson has developed well over his coaching career, and aims to hold true to his ideals while realizing as much success for the BYU men's basketball program as possible.

"I've never been a guy afraid to stand alone, and I think (Young) is the same way," Dunson said. "I think he's going to stand on what he believes in, and that's why I think BYU is such a great fit."

BYU’s new men’s head basketball coach Kevin Young makes a few remarks during an announcement event in the Marriott Center in Provo on Wednesday, April 17, 2024.
BYU’s new men’s head basketball coach Kevin Young makes a few remarks during an announcement event in the Marriott Center in Provo on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Cougars attraction

Dunson recalled the one time he coached against BYU at the Marriott Cernter, back when he was an assistant coach at Arizona Christian College in 2015. Although Arizona Christian was tied with BYU at the half, Jake Toolson and Nick Emery fueled a second half surge, with the Cougars ultimately winning the game 103-75.

Dunson remembers the game well, and particularly the atmosphere that has persisted, and maybe even grown, at the Marriott Center since then. It's an environment he compares with programs such as Arizona, Gonzaga and San Diego State.

"To me, those are the top four on the west coast, when you think of fan bases and environments. ... You know the reputation of the school, and the value that it holds, and those types of things," Dunson said. "And, obviously, the program has been very, very successful over the last decade. So I have a lot of respect for that."

Dunson has since coached at Cal State Fullerton and at Stanford before making the jump to BYU. Over that time, and even prior, he's taken copious notes on the best approaches in bringing about top performance from his players in a team environment.

"I've been at all different levels and I've seen a lot of things, and a lot of ways things are done. ... So I think everything that I've been through at the college level can kind of serve as something to help give Kevin perspective," he said.

Marrying both Young and Dunson's inherent abilities to the unique aspects held at BYU could prescribe a potent collaboration — specifically with regards to retaining players year-to-year.

"If you're coming here, you're not coming here just for basketball only, which means there's a lot better chance that you're going to retain guys," Dunson said. "In turn, that means you need to develop guys. A lot of people talk about developing guys, but in the world of the transfer portal no one really develops.

"I think there's a really strong sale. And with regards to the development factor, I don't know if there's another coach in the country that can sell what coach Young can sell to him, because he's been there and he's done it over the last eight years at the NBA level."

Realizing retention

Young's stated prerogative, above all else, was to retain the current roster BYU had in place prior to Pope leaving BYU for Kentucky.

The primary tool Young utilized in retaining the services of both Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders, Dunson said, was something that has proved elusive to more than several in the coaching ranks.

"There's one limited resource that we all have, and no one has really been able to master it, and that's time," Dunson said. "Coach Young showed those guys with all the time he put into them. … He gained a great deal of trust from them, and I ultimately feel that's one of the big reasons why they came back."

Considering what was established through their collective play last year, the prospect of retaining, and even advancing that level, is something Dunson is excited to help realize.

"One thing that you can say was consistent throughout the entire year was how hard they played and how hard they competed," Dunson said. "So that's something that we're looking to build on. … I think we're going to have a chance to be really, really successful next year."

Criddle's conclusion

Since hiring Dunson as the first assistant coach of a new era, Young has added the services of assistant coach Chris Burgess, who joins his staff after coaching two seasons at Utah. Burgess was part of Pope's staff at BYU from 2019-2022.

Young has also created a new chief of staff position filled by Doug Stewart, a long time college basketball coach and most recently an assistant athletic director at Nevada. Stewart will essentially operate as a general manager for BYU basketball, thus mirroring an NBA-like organization at the collegiate level that Young has envisioned.

But there's a reason why Dunson was the first hire Young made, and there's a strong argument to be made that he's the most important hire of all of his assistants.

As a non-Latter-day Saint that has successful coaching and recruiting experience at Stanford, it was imperative to bring Dunson into the BYU fold. Stanford is one of the few schools that competes at the highest level in collegiate sports while limiting their recruiting pool through academic barriers. Stanford creates barriers of entry to those wanting to compete at such an elite level due to those elevated standards.

Not all great basketball players will be able to receive a scholarship offer from Stanford due to it being about much more than sports. The same goes for BYU, which prioritizes more than just athletic ability.

Athletic, cultural, academic, and spiritual fit are critical to achieve the get-old, stay-old adage at BYU. All college basketball coaches seek to get old and stay old within their programs, in the new NIL/transfer portal era, it's even more difficult to achieve.

BYU couples its high academic standards with an honor code that can limit its selection pool. Dunson is very well familiar with the intensive vetting process of finding the best fit for a high level academic and athletic institution, which will serve him well in this new role of finding, recruiting, retaining and developing the next generation of NBA players coming out of BYU.

Although an NBA pipeline from BYU is an extremely lofty goal to achieve, that is Young's vision, "to make this place the best place in college basketball to prepare young men to play in the NBA."

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