WCC Men’s Basketball Preview: Cougars responding to start of league season
Among Mark Pope’s many words to live by is this gem: “The game doesn’t care what just happened. It only cares how you are going to respond.”
So far, the BYU men’s basketball team has responded pretty well to a difficult preseason schedule and an early helping of adversity.
The Cougars rose as high as No. 12 in the AP poll early in the preseason after a 6-0 start. Then came an overtime loss to Utah Valley and a season-ending injury to big man Gavin Baxter. Another blow came when starting center Richard Harward, who only played a few minutes in the exhibition game against Colorado Christian, announced he would have to miss the remainder of the season due to a cardiovascular issue. On-court losses to Creighton and Vanderbilt caused much grumbling and despair for BYU fans.
All Pope’s crew has done is respond.
With Baxter and Harward out, freshmen Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki had to take on much more responsibility inside, along with sophomore Caleb Lohner. Traore earned his first start in a win against Liberty in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii last week and scored a career-high 19 points to go along with 12 rebounds. He was selected to the All-Tournament team and on Monday earned the West Coast Conference’s Player and Freshman of the Week.
Each loss was followed by a win, maintaining a streak with Pope at the helm where the Cougars have never lost back-to-back games during the regular season in the past three years.
“I don’t like those kinds of losing streaks,” Pope said. “I’m blessed as a coach to be able to be in a locker room with a group of guys who get through the mourning process so fast and get to the constructive process.”
BYU is 11-3 against a schedule that included seven games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season and eight of the past nine away from the Marriott Center.
“This schedule had everything in it to break us,” Pope observed, “but it didn’t.”
The preseason concludes Wednesday night against Division II school Westminster, a tune-up for the start of the WCC season. The Cougars open conference play on the road against a rebuilt Portland team on Saturday.
There is still work to do. While super senior Alex Barcello has been terrific, consistency is needed from others, including transfers Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what the guys have done,” Pope said. “It’s really staggering. We also believe we have a massive amount of work to do. Our conference has elite level teams in it. We’re really close to having three Quad 1 games in our first five in conference. Think about that. It’s super cool.”
BYU is no longer receiving votes in the Top 25 poll but has a solid NET ranking (30) and received a No. 8 seed in the latest ESPN Bracketology. The WCC has five top 100 NET ranking teams and as many as four could make the NCAA Tournament.
The start of the WCC season has already been affected by COVID protocols, with four games postponed due to pauses at San Diego and Santa Clara.
Through it all, Pope has maintained his belief that the Cougars can do something special.
“We’re going through this transition right now,” Pope said. “I think teams have to re-invent themselves through the course of the season. As a coach, I’m really blessed to have a locker room full of guys who are capable of playing different ways and are willing. As a staff they give us this incredible gift of just being willing to approach the game a little bit differently and refocus in areas and grow.”
West Coast Conference Power Rankings
1. Gonzaga (11-2)
NET ranking: 5
Trending: The Bulldogs opened the season with six straight wins by an average of 31.5 points per game.
Best win: An 86-73 victory vs. Texas (No. 20 NET ranking) on Nov. 13 as Drew Timme scored 37 points.
Best player: Drew Timme 6-10 Jr. F (18.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 61.5% FG)
The Word: Despite losing Cory Kispert, Jalen Suggs and Joel Ayayi to pro ball, Gonzaga reloaded with amazing talent yet again. That includes 7-foot freshman Chet Holmgren (13.3 ppg, 45 blocks) and Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton (10.7 ppg), who have fit in well. The ‘Zags are perennially the team to beat in the WCC and that doesn’t change.
2. BYU (11-3)
NET ranking: 30
Trending: The Cougars opened the season with six straight wins.
Best win: BYU beat Utah State (No. 55 NET ranking) 82-71 on Dec. 8.
Best player: Alex Barcello 6-2 Sr. G (17.9 ppg, 35 3s, 48.6% 3pt FG)
The Word: The team is still adjusting to the losses of big men Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter, but the performance of freshman Fousseyni Traore at the Diamond Head Classic is encouraging. When this team shoots the ball well there isn’t anyone left on the schedule they can’t challenge.
3. San Francisco (12-1)
NET ranking: 32
Trending: USF started the season 10-0 before falling at Grand Canyon on Dec. 18.
Best win: The Dons topped Davidson (No. 46 NET ranking) 65-60 on Nov. 13.
Best player: Jamaree Bouyea 6-2 Sr. G (17.8 ppg, 34 3s, 42% 3pt FG)
The Word: USF returned most of its roster from 2020-21 and the addition of 6-10 Yauhen Massalski from San Diego and 6-9 Patrick Tape from Duke means the Dons are more than just a 3-point shooting team. USF is 10-0 at home and should challenge BYU and Saint Mary’s for the best spot behind Gonzaga.
4. Saint Mary’s (11-3)
NET ranking: 47
Trending: Two of the Gaels’ three losses have been to ranked teams (No. 24 Wisconsin and No. 20 Colorado State).
Best win: Saint Mary’s edged Utah State (No. 55 NET ranking) 60-58 in Logan on Dec. 2.
Best player: Matthias Taas 6-10 Sr. F (12.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 64% FG)
The Word: Randy Bennett returned most of his roster from 2020-21 and Tass has been terrific so far as the focal point of the Gaels’ deliberate offense. Dan Fotu, Tommy Kuhse, Alex Ducas and Logan Johnson all average better than nine points per game and keep defenses honest. Saint Mary’s is doing it with defense, leading the WCC by allowing just 58 points per game.
5. Santa Clara (10-5)
NET ranking: 89
Trending: The Broncos won three games in a row (Florida A&M, Montana, San Jose State) to end the preseason.
Best win: Santa Clara defeated TCU (No. 56 NET ranking) 85-66 in the SoCal Challenge on Nov. 22.
Best player: Jalen Williams 6-6 Jr. G (18.8 ppg, 52% FG)
The Word: Williams has picked up his game and is the leading scorer in the WCC after the preseason. He had 30 points against Hawaii and 28 against Louisiana Tech in back-to-back games. Big man Josip Vrankic missed eight games in the middle of the preseason with injury but he’s back. The Broncos went 4-4 in the games Vrankic missed.
6. Loyola Marymount (7-5)
NET ranking: 164
Trending: The Lions are ninth (out of 10) in the WCC in scoring defense (68.6 points allowed per game).
Best win: LMU knocked off SMU (No. 79 NET ranking) 76-70 at the Jacksonville Classic on Nov. 22.
Best player: Eli Scott 6-5 Sr. F (15.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.8 apg)
The Word: Scott is doing his thing and leading the Lions in just about every category. But he hasn’t gotten nearly enough help, though Joe Quintana scored a career-high 28 points against Bellarmine on Dec. 21. Scott, Quintana and big man Keli Leaupepe make the LMU dangerous on any given night.
7. San Diego (7-6)
NET ranking: 211
Trending: The Toreros program in on a COVID-19 pause and the first two games of the WCC season (Thursday hosting Gonzaga and Saturday at Santa Clara) are postponed.
Best win: San Diego defeated UC Riverside (No. 120 NET ranking) 74-62 on Nov. 17.
Best player: Marcellus Earlington 6-6 Sr. F (13.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
The Word: San Diego is still in building mode under third-year coach Sam Scholl. Earlington, a former St. John’s tranfer, has played well and can be a load in the paint. The Toreros are a solid defensive team and lead the WCC in points allowed per game (60.3) and can be dangerous in low-scoring game situations.
8. Portland (9-6)
NET ranking: 245
Trending: The Pilots have won nine games after winning just six all last season.
Best win: Portland got past UC Davis (No. 195 NET ranking) on Dec. 22.
Best player: Tyler Robertson 6-6 Jr. G (15.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
The Word: New head coach Shantay Legans and his group of Eastern Washington imports have vastly improved what was a sinking program. Robertson, Mike Meadows and Jack Perry all played for Legans at EWU and other transfers are helping out as well. The Pilots have a ways to go to compete at the top of the WCC but on a given night they could rise up against a good team and get a win.
9. Pepperdine (6-9)
NET ranking: 254
Trending: The Waves have won four of their past five games.
Best win: Pepperdine defeated UC Davis No. 195 NET ranking) 72-67 on Nov. 17.
Best player: Jan Zidek 6-9 Jr. F (12.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
The Word: Lorenzo Romar had to replace a couple of all-timers in Colbey Ross and Kessler Edwards and the early returns in 2021-22 are not good. The Waves are last in the WCC in scoring defense (72.6) and this week went on COVID-19 pause, postponing their league opener at Saturday against Pacific.
10. Pacific (5-9)
NET ranking: 302
Trending: The Tigers have lost six of their past seven games.
Best win: Pacific outlasted UCSB (No. 242 NET Ranking) 80-71 in overtime on Dec. 14.
Best player: Jeremiah Bailey 6-6 Jr. F (10.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
The Word: The bottom of the WCC is weak and the Tigers are struggling to find some consistency on offense. Pacific is averaging just 66.4 points per game, last in the WCC. Alphonso Anderson and Luke Avdalovic also average around 10 points per game but others need to step up if the Tigers want to avoid the basement of the WCC.
WCC Men’s Basketball Schedule
Tuesday, Dec. 28
Gonzaga 93, North Alabama 63
Academy of Art at San Francisco, 7 p.m. MT (WCC Network)
Yale at Saint Mary’s, 8 p.m. MT (WCC Network)
Wednesday, Dec. 29
Westminster at BYU, 7 p.m. MT (BYUtv)
Thursday, Dec. 30
Gonzaga at San Diego (postponed)
Santa Clara at Pacific (postponed)
Saturday, Jan. 1
San Diego at Santa Clara (postponed)
Pepperdine at Pacific (postponed)
Gonzaga at Loyola Marymount, 5 p.m. MT (NBCSCA/WCC Network)
San Francisco at Saint Mary’s, 6 p.m. MT (Stadium)
BYU at Portland, 8 p.m. MT (Stadium)