WCC race

FRANCHUK: BYU could've used 1st-place Gonzaga's help Saturday night

2014-02-09T15:00:00Z 2014-03-20T21:00:01Z FRANCHUK: BYU could've used 1st-place Gonzaga's help Saturday nightJason Franchuk - Daily Herald Daily Herald
February 09, 2014 3:00 pm  • 

A time zone east from Provo, it was the West Coast Conference's best team right now that missed out on what one one player called a "golden opportunity."

It remains to be seen how much BYU may also have been affected by Gonzaga's meltdown at Memphis on national television.

If you're one that believes there is guilt or pleasure to be had by schedule association, it's been a mixed bag lately for the Cougars.

Iowa State is sliding in a brutally strong Big 12 Conference. UMass isn't ranked anymore. Oregon, yet another team that defeated BYU, was undefeated when the Cougars visited in December. It has fallen so badly it may not be making the NCAA Tournament.

The win against Texas (second place in the Big 12, 18-5 overall) in late November has looked strong in recent weeks.

Also of note, a tight loss to Wichita State (well, until the last four minutes) certainly doesn't look so bad, now that the Shockers are ranked in the top five and on Saturday became the first team since 2007-08 to start the season 25-0.

That also happened to be Memphis, which may have taken a worth-remembering shot at the WCC's reputation Saturday night.

Mind you, this isn't a criticism of the WCC's overall brand. Had BYU capitalized on a few more early opportunities, or not faltered on the road in conference play three harsh times to lesser teams, there wouldn't be all of this are they/aren't they "on the bubble" talk these days.

But when a league's best team (well rested, at that) slumps in such miserable fashion, and can't hold a big lead against a comparable opponent — home or not — there has to be a little skepticism that extends beyond the actual loser.

GU did BYU no favors the other night.

And forget BYU's four-game swoon in December. Lots of really good teams have slumps. But the broader picture is the bigger concern, especially in league play.

GU, which already hammered the Cougars late last month, scored only 12 points in the final 14:30 — and only one basket in the final five minutes in a 60-54 defeat pitting a pair of non-league teams that are hovering in the lower portion of the top 25.

The Bulldogs had a 12-point lead at one point in the second half, very similar to some BYU circumstances against top-level opposition. The Bulldogs haven't beaten a nationally ranked team this year, which, for better or worse, may be an issue down the road for the WCC's top two teams.

That is, if it's worth considering that Gonzaga is still running away with the WCC race.

Gonzaga took a week off league play with a bye then the Memphis trip, but still sports an 11-1 mark in WCC games with six to play, the last four on the road.

Even with a four-game winning streak, all at home, BYU is significantly behind GU despite being alone in second place: 9-4 with three of the final five away from the Marriott Center.

"The best thing about this time of year," BYU head coach Dave Rose said after Saturday's rally against San Francisco, "is when you win, it makes the next game even more important for us."

This is true. And Rose has done a quality job of not letting this team panic, after the Cougars unraveled last season and wrote their own ticket to the NIT.

BYU has very solid strength of schedule numbers — not that the team worries about this at all these days — but closing the gap on GU may be vital in this particular season to be evaluated favorably by the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

By not capitalizing on some non-conference opportunities, plus three rough WCC road losses to middle-of-the-pack Pepperdine, forlorn Loyola Marymount (last in the league these days, 3-10) and hot-and-cold Portland — it's fair to say BYU's margin for error is quite slim, if not absent as March approaches.

"We'll look forward to next week," Rose said Saturday night of a return to the road.

My colleague, Jared Lloyd, wrote after Thursday's game about the various scenarios for BYU to put itself in prime discussion to be in the field of 68 (short of winning the at-large bid in the conference tournament).

My take: A road sweep the next two games, Pacific on Thursday and Saint Mary's on Saturday — where BYU hasn't fared well the past two years — is critical.

Closing the gap against Gonzaga, by defeating it two Saturdays from now, is vital as well.

BYU is in a league this year that happens to be down at the top — Gonzaga and Saint Mary's simply aren't as good as last year, we've known that all along— and improved from the basement level. That's been a nice surprise, but it's also dented the Cougars in spots.

By various mathematical formulas, produced by various pundits, the WCC is around the 10th strongest league (higher than the Mountain West in most calculations, if you still concerned yourself with such comparisons).

But there's still too much gray area for BYU to potentially get lost when it is compared to lower-placing teams from stronger conferences.

Winning will certainly help raise its own stock. But having Gonzaga be successful, at least out of conference, would've been something nice to lean on come Selection Sunday.

∫Driving the Carlino: Rose obviously pushed the right buttons with his junior point guard in the last couple of months. He's been a steadier player off the bench.

Of note, Carlino has 29 assists and five turnovers as the backup to Kyle Collinsworth in the last six games.

He also hit a couple key 3-pointers in the second half to help rally against USF.

"I thought Carlino gave them a great lift," USF coach Rex Walters said. "Those two threes really hurt us. That got them going. You know, we get a couple stops then a team can maybe start to doubt themselves a little. But Carlino didn't let them do that tonight. He really stepped up."

Also worth considering, his stats compared directly to Skyler Halford are pretty comparable.

Worth noting, it's a bit of an unfair analysis, because Halford is the shooting guard while Carlino didn't feel comfortable in that spot. He is still a point guard.

Halford, a locally raised junior-college transfer, has made 15-of-47 shots over the last six games. He also has 14 rebounds, one steal and six turnovers.

Carlino is 19-of-56 with 11 rebounds, 14 steals and five turnovers. His biggest steal may have come at right under four minutes left against USF in a one-possession game. A mix-up on an in-bounds play at mid-court had a Don tracking down the loose ball for what sure seemed like an easy two points.

Carlino sprinted and slowed the play down, and even forced a steal.

"Matt's playing hard. He wanted to win, you could tell," Rose said. "He got in there and found a gear where he could really compete in this game. ...It was a great play by not giving up on the play, that's for sure."

∫Fan education: Some teams have been smart this year at the Marriott Center, and BYU's wonderfully energetic student section this year got played again.

The Cougar youngsters do the "left-right...sit down!" chant as an opposing player heads to the bench after a fifth foul. No problem there.

But USF's disqualified player was clever to take a seat — and get the loudest part of the chant — right when Tyler Haws was about to release his free-throw attempt.

Whoops. Haws missed late in the game, when free throws were becoming a true hassle.

Might be time for another BYU fan education video. (Or not.)

But it's also time for the Cougars to work on free throws again: 14-of-29 for the night won't cut it down the stretch.

∫Ending on a high note: Let's not end in such a snarky way. Instead, let's talk a little more Nate Austin.

The 6-foot-11 junior has joined Carlino in carving out a wonderful niche.

Austin is a rebounding machine these days.

During the last 10 games, he's averaging 8.9 boards. Twice he's had career highs. He's ranked second in the WCC.

For whatever reason, the seemingly patented 17-foot jumper isn't on his side anymore. He doesn't take it, or he looks uncomfortable shooting it.

But he took a late charge in a tight game and added a putback dunk off a teammate's miss. The 16 rebounds against USF was his new best.

So BYU's 'Rex' is a higher seed than USF's Rex (Walters) in Rexetology.

If there isn't such a thing, there should be.

jason-franchuk
-- 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.

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