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LLOYD: Success or failure for BYU men’s hoops won’t be separated by very much

By Jared Lloyd - | Oct 22, 2021
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BYU center Richard Harward addresses questions at the team's annual media day in the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)
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BYU senior guard Alex Barcello addresses questions at the team's annual media day in the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)
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BYU men's basketball coach Mark Pope (right) discusses the 2021-22 team and season with reporters at the annual media day in the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo)

The more I watch college basketball, the more I realize that the line that separates successful teams and struggling teams is actually really, really small.

Take the BYU men’s basketball team, for example.

The Cougars had seven games that were decided by six points or fewer in 2020-21. That’s only two made 3-pointers or two missed 3-pointers by the other team.

Other games, like the loss to No. 1-ranked Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tournament championship, had more separation in the final score but still hinged on a few key plays.

The players and coaches understand when good teams clash, little things can be the difference.

“My mentality when it comes to sports is that the biggest difference between success and failure is how much effort you’re giving,” BYU center Richard Harward said during Media Day on Thursday. “If you can come out of a game and know that you gave your full effort and you’re seeing your teammates succeed and trying to help them succeed, that is when you see success in your own game.”

As I looked around at the Cougar players as they talked at Media Day, I thought about all the little things that will determine if BYU is an average team, a good team, a great team or an exceptional team.

To me, it’s not as simple as making a big shot or a critical blocked shot. I talked to the Cougars about four specific areas that make a difference:

1. Health

Is BYU a different team last year if Gavin Baxter was healthy for the entire season? Will this season be impacted by someone getting hurt?

Baxter — who said he’s feeling really good health-wise now — told me that reality means every player on the team has to prepare with urgency.

“It’s competing everyday in practice and holding everybody accountable to that high level of competition,” Baxter said. “That means that when you are called up or someone goes down, you’ve got to fill the role. You may have to accept that you’re going to make a lot of mistakes but you’ve got to be willing to learn from it. A team needs every guy, from the starters all the way down to guys who don’t see the floor much. It’s going to take everybody everyday at practice and in every game.”

2. Physicality

Can BYU handle an opponent who wants to grind things out under the basket or aggressively body guys who are coming hard through the lane?

Harward explained that the physical elements can make a difference in close games but he emphasized taking care of individual responsibilities.

“It’s just focusing on the things that you can control,” Harward said. “When it comes to rebounds, free throws, making the right pass at the right time, being selfless with the ball instead of selfish, that’s the biggest thing you can do. There’s always many times you don’t feel like you’re playing well so you simplify the game. You slow down and ask yourself, ‘what can I do right right now.'”

3. Mentality

How will a little extra mental toughness change things when there are two minutes left in a tie game in a hostile environment?

Cougar assistant coach Nick Robinson told me that preparation is the first step to having the necessary confidence to excel in big moments, but it’s only part of the equation.

“The game of basketball, like many things, is based on each individual but also the collective group confidence,” Robinson said. “The mental approach we take is about getting better each day, about taking on adversity and fighting through it. For our guys to mentally prepare themselves and buy into that confidence, it allows guys the freedom to go out and make those key plays. That helps guys have the mental fortitude and competence to make plays individually and for each other.”

4. Emotional stability

If guys play better when they are having fun and enjoying the game like head coach Mark Pope said, how big of an impact will it be if they can maintain that when the chips are down?

BYU assistant coach Cody Fueger explained that emotional well-being both with basketball and life permeates everything the program does.

“It’s huge,” Fueger said. “We focus on it as a staff every day. We talk about how players are doing, not just basketball stuff but off the court. We try to check in with our guys every single day to make sure that they’re mentally prepared for having a great practice as well as off the floor stuff with academics. It’s just really important, having a healthy relationship and keeping these guys positive and in the right mindset.”

I’m a big believer in a multi-faceted approach to success. I like that the Cougars talk about all these different elements that mind impact what happens this year.

When you combine that big-picture view with the talent I saw on the court, I’m cautiously optimistic that this BYU team will be on the right side of that success/struggle line.

It won’t be long until they go out and prove it on the court.

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