They’re running again. They’re ripping the ball off the rim, turning it 90 feet in an all-out sprint, taking everything you think you know about basketball and throwing it back in your face.
The fastest, strongest, most athletic team at the West Coast Conference tournament also happens to be the whitest. This is admittedly the crudest observation one could make about BYU, but it is nonetheless true. One look at the players on the floor, the players on the bench and even the coaching staff, and it hits you. BYU is the whitest team in major college basketball.
And yet, in so many ways, no team in the country is as capable of challenging our perceptions of race and basketball and what it means to be talented in a game where the majority of Division I players are black.
Despite a loss to Gonzaga on Saturday in the conference tournament semifinals, BYU is likely to play in the NCAA tournament for a sixth straight year. This is no small feat at school that has a solid basketball history but only sporadic success on a national level. Before this current streak, BYU averaged four NCAA appearances per decade. It is also no small feat at a school affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where 98 percent of the students are practicing Mormons, blacks make up just one half of one percent of the 34,000 students and an honor code prohibits all kinds of behaviors that would be accepted elsewhere.
Demographically, the basketball team isn’t overwhelmingly different from the school. Four of BYU’s 13 scholarship players (and one assistant coach) are black, one of whom is originally from the Ivory Coast. Though it didn’t happen Friday night in a quarterfinal win over San Diego, BYU has played stretches this season with five white players on the floor, something rarely seen at this level of college basketball.
It’s also striking that just two players on the roster — UCLA transfer Matt Carlino and freshman Anson Winder — are not members of the LDS church. Coach Dave Rose, who has won nearly 78 percent of his games, doesn’t spend much time recruiting non-Mormon players because he knows he’s unlikely to get them.
“We’ll tell them, ‘Hey, we really believe you could help our program,’ ” Rose said. “But there has to be some part of them that actually recruits us and says, ‘You know what, this is something I really could see myself doing. Then we see if it’s a fit.”
It’s not impossible for BYU to get a player for traditional basketball reasons. Winder, an African-American and practicing Catholic from Las Vegas, was recruited by a number of mid-major programs. The 6-foot-3 guard, who starts for the Cougars after redshirting last year, came in part because his father played junior-college basketball with Rose at Dixie College in the late 1970s.
“Not everybody can adjust to the life of BYU,” he said. “It’s different, but people there, they still accept me as if I am a member of the church. They treat me the same. Nobody cares. Sure, people talk to you about their religion, but overall everyone’s pretty accepting. I love it.”
People focus on these things when it comes to BYU because it’s impossible not to. It is a unique place, more driven by its religious and cultural mission than any school in the country. And when that bleeds into athletics, perceptions form.
BYU? Its players are the slow, chippy white guys who stand outside and shoot 3-pointers, right? The guys you would see in your church league, only a little taller and a little better, right? That’s the perception of BYU basketball because that’s largely the perception of white players. Even last season, when Jimmer Fredette was a national attraction every time the Cougars took the court, he was labeled slow and unathletic.
And yet to watch BYU this season and realize what it has accomplished is to understand that race and religion have as little to do with the way they play as any team in the country.
BYU has legitimate talent. BYU has athletes who are at their best playing fast, ripping and running, speeding up your tempo. BYU doesn’t have Jimmer anymore, but it has a few guys who will make a living paying basketball somewhere.
“And we just sent four or five guys to the NBA or overseas the past three or four years too,” Rose said. “Everyone thought when Jimmer left this team would be in trouble and maybe we’d plateau at .500 or something. They’ve won 25 games. That’s one of the challenges that this group has actually risen up to.”
Take our perceptions of race and religion out of the equation, and BYU looks as much like a big-time program as any team West of the Rockies. They score, they run and they play a thoroughly entertaining brand of basketball. Ken Pomeroy, the guru of advanced statistics, ranks them fifth in the country in tempo. If you don’t like watching BYU, you either don’t like basketball or you have an outdated paradigm of what BYU is supposed to be.
“You definitely have to be ready to run when you come to BYU,” Winder said. “For a player who wants to get out and run, it’s a good fit.”
We have seen in the midst of the Jeremy Lin story that for as much as we talk about moving past stereotypes, they are still prevalent when it comes to athletic ability. Like Lin, BYU is supposed to fit in a certain box, to be a certain type of team. Then you watch BYU, and you realize none of it is true.
It doesn’t mean BYU is going to win a national title or even get to a Final Four. But if the Cougars can shake people out of looking at them just as a white team and more as one of the most entertaining teams in college basketball, that’s an even bigger accomplishment.