Tyler Haws did his typical round of interviews, again having to stop himself because of a disruption.

Sometimes this season it's been because of a scene being made by a teammate (one in particular) behind the group of reporters interviewing the BYU star. This time, after Tuesday's practice, it was because of a menacing howl in the Marriott Center hallway.

A high-pitched scream that wouldn't stop.

Haws could only shake his head and smile, gather himself and try to keep answering the questions as Eric Mika worked his throaty hijinks somewhere unseen.

Same old "E," Haws had to be thinking of his teammate, the Cougar freshman center. The beloved blond prankster was at it again.

And, no joke, BYU would like to reestablish the same old Mika on the basketball court heading into a critical two-game road swing that has BYU on the cusp of being the West Coast Conference's top team.

That is, if it can muster a sweep of improved Portland (Thursday) and first-place Gonzaga (Saturday).

"He's such a good player. I feel like he expects so much out of himself. And we expect so much out of him, because we need him so much," BYU point guard Matt Carlino said. "So it's a tough situation for him, but he handles it so well."

BYU's thrived lately despite the seemingly important Mika being a mix of limited and ineffective.

Carlino is playing some of the best ball of his Cougar career, even making 19-of-38 shots in the five games since being turned into a sixth-man spark.

On a guard-dominated team, the group is finally clicking. Kyle Collinsworth is a consistent triple-double threat these days as the starting point guard instead of Carlino. Skyler Halford in the starting lineup continues to be a solid revelation at both ends of the floor. The steady Haws is finding his groove around those parts.

But getting Mika resumed as a bigger threat would be more than mere gravy, teammates acknowledge, as 13-7 BYU (5-2 WCC) is only a game behind Gonzaga (6-1).

Mika's battled foul trouble all season. But the issue that is plaguing him right now is confidence, after suffering a badly bruised hip early in the second half of a Jan. 4 home win against San Diego.

He missed the next two games as well, and had trouble finding his rhythm in the San Francisco-area road trip of two wins last week.

Late against Santa Clara last Saturday, Mika had a frazzled few minutes that included a foul and a traveling call. After the latter, he pleaded for coaches to remove him.

Carlino has suggested a few times that Mika can be hard on himself, and Mika's frustrated demand to his coaches in that instance showed just how much.

But BYU really could use its starting center healthy and in a good frame of mind this weekend. Also, starting power forward Nate Austin left Tuesday's practice early with an injured ankle, further offering question marks about a thin post presence.

No two-game WCC travel-partner swing offers as much sturdy post play as facing the Pilots and Bulldogs.

Portland (11-6, 3-4 WCC) has a resurgence built on forwards Ryan Nicholas (6-foot-7) and Thomas van der Mars (6-11).

"I've felt a little bit rusty," Mika said. "Hopefully going through a full week of practice this week, I'll feel 100 percent."

Mika is BYU's only true low post (back to the basket) presence this year, after the graduation of Brandon Davies to the NBA. He has started all 18 available games for the Cougars (13-7, 5-2) that have won their last five.

He's the fourth-best scorer (13.5 ppg) and third-best rebounder (6.2).

Perhaps most fascinating, Mika suggested after Tuesday's practice that the hip ailment has been harder to overcome mentally than the Nov. 20 injury when he had an eye gouged by an Iowa State player who was ejected for the altercation.

Mika wore goggles for a few games after that.

There's no such protection for an ailing hip, however, except time and a lot of physical therapy. And a continued regaining of trust to jump.

"It's my planting leg," Mika said. "I rely on my left leg a lot...With every injury, there's a little bit of it — not being timid; scared you're going to get hurt."

Haws said he's counseled Mika to consistently "play hard" through the typical freshman ups and downs. Also, continuing to seek out rebounds and establish "good position in the post" so Mika is a viable threat that also opens up opportunities for teammates along the perimeter.

"Eric's really playing hard for the guys right now. He's in a situation where I think he's trying to feel his way back onto the floor," BYU coach Dave Rose said.

Mika has scored at least 10 points in all but his very first BYU game, seven against Weber State on Nov. 8.

Even limited against San Diego in early January, before getting hurt, he had 13 points (5-of-7 shooting) in 17 minutes. Mika chased a 3-point shooter in the corner, fell hard — and that landing changed his course of confidence somewhat.

He had four turnovers against Santa Clara in 25 minutes.

Though you'd never know it by seeing him laugh with teammates, or continue to distract them after practice.

"I felt good in practice before those games," Mika said of the San Francisco trip in which he made 9-of-20 shots. "But once you get into a game, it's a whole different thing. It was like how I felt the very first games of the season. Everything felt fast."

BYU (13-7, 5-2 West Coast Conference) at Portland (11-8, 3-4)

8 p.m. MST, Chiles Center (Portland, Ore.)

Radio: KSL 1160 AM (102.7 FM)


Tip-ins: BYU has won its last five games. ...UP most notably defeated then-ranked Gonzaga, 82-73, at home on Jan. 9; the Pilots' first win in 21 tries against the WCC's flagship program. ..6-5 guard Kevin Bailey (17.2 ppg) leads UP in scoring, though the team is built on forwards Ryan Nicholas and Thomas van der Mars, who combine for 25 ppg, 15.8 rpg.

-- Jason Franchuk covers primarily BYU football and basketball for the Daily Herald. You can connect with him by email at jfranchuk@heraldextra.com or by following him on Twitter at

Read more from  Jason Franchuk here.