BYU basketball: Can Cougars still have noteworthy season?

With Saturday’s win over Pacific and a 12-5 record, BYU basketball has mostly done as expected. The Cougars lost when pundits thought they would lose. But they have yet to get that win that defies the odds.

BYU basketball has made oddsmakers feel pretty smart so far this season. They have achieved pretty close to just as anticipated through 17 games. No more. Maybe a bit less.

The odds were against them in matches against Valpo, USC, Illinois, and St. Mary’s. Accordingly, they lost, and mostly by a predictable amount.

When the Cougars are supposed to win, they do, often convincingly. This was the case against the Pacific Tigers, who they took care of by 29 points Saturday night.

Not that the team took the win for granted—that home loss to Pacific effectively ended the BYU’s NCAA at-large hopes last year. Between that and the road loss to St. Mary’s, they had motivation in abundance. But even their best wins (home against Colorado and Princeton) the Cougars were still favored, if only marginally.

And yes, the exception to this rule was the game against UVU. I clearly recall the Shakespearean-level tragedy that toppled the Cougars when they were favored to win as much as by 99 percent. The memory of a Marriott Center record 3-pointers against and the most disgraceful loss in recent basketball history takes time to purge.

I’ve heard people say that UVU isn’t that bad. I would be glad if the Wolverines did something to substantiate that.

But looked upon via a statistical perspective, that loss is merely an outlier, and a common one in the lens of college basketball at large. Mediocre teams beat good ones all the time. Sometimes you just roll snake eyes.

The problem is, the Cougars have yet to throw down a pair of sixes.

If BYU basketball doesn’t start to take one or two of these odds-against games, they’ll settle quietly into a third place finish in the West Coast Conference, be brushed off to another NIT bid, and stamp their season with a great big meh.

And meh would be a great shame for a team that (although young) fans and commentators have touted as one of the most talented Cougar squads of the decade.

Can BYU basketball break their middling trend? Two positive signs say they can.

There are signs that the Cougars can start stripping away the trappings of mediocrity. The first is the infusion of a pair of subs only recently made available, Corbin Kaufusi and Elijah Bryant.

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Coach Dave Rose has been working Kaufusi in slowly, and the starting center for the last two years has yet to score a bucket in limited minutes.

But don’t be surprised if things start to click for Corbin as he works himself back into “basketball shape.”  He can be a dominating defensive presence, and shore up the Cougars’ big man rotation. He will be essential when foul trouble inevitably befalls Eric Mika and Yoeli Childs.

Eli Bryant finally showed some of what coaches have been talking about against Pacific. He looked confident, smooth, and off the bench, could be a huge difference maker as he gets his rhythm back.

There will be some difficulty meshing Bryant with the rotations Coach Rose has been massaging into shape so far this season. But Eli has a dynamic frame and form of attack as a mid-sized, off-the-dribble 3-point shooter and slasher combo.

Having that value in a bench player will be vital to take one from Gonzaga, or get one back from St. Mary’s at home. By himself, Bryant could tip the scales from NIT bound to NCAA dancing.

The second good sign for BYU? The very same thing that has been the Cougar’s weakness may turn to be their strength as the season rolls on: their youth.

TJ Haws is shooting better and better, especially with the start of conference. Yoeli Child’s visibly improves game by game. Even Steven Beo has started to show he has a solid place in BYU’s lineup. This team will have time to get even better before their next “St. Zaga” game in February, and have fresher legs when the grind of the conference tournament comes around.

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With these added to the foundation that Eric Mika lays, BYU basketball might just produce a noteworthy season yet.

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