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Young Cougars still figuring out how to pay the price to win

By Darnell Dickson - | Dec 6, 2022

BYU's Alex Barcello (in black) tries to shoot the ball with Utah Valley's 6-foot-11 center, Fardaws Aimaq, looming behind him during a men's college basketball game at the UCCU Center in Orem on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (BYU Courtesy Photo)

BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope often talks to his young team about the price to be paid to win.

They are still learning what it takes.

“A lot of times you learn it from the veteran presence in the program,” Pope said. “Unfortunately, all of our veteran presence is sitting on the bench right now with injuries (Spencer Johnson and Trevin Knell) so that’s really tough. And then sometimes you can learn it just because you could be so convicted and just pushing so hard that you kind of manufacture that education yourself. And that’s also positive.

“Then sometimes you’re forced to learn it just by getting battered in the head over and over and over again. Then it’s just is born inside you. It’s earned that way through difficulty. That’s the less enjoyable way to learn it but it’s also a super meaningful way to learn it.”

The 5-4 Cougars are spending most of their time learning the hard way, as evident in Saturday’s 69-68 loss to South Dakota at Vivint Arena. BYU fell behind the Coyotes by 19 points in the first half and by 21 points with just over ten minutes to play.

The Cougars were having trouble shooting the ball and defending South Dakota. Body language was bad and the mostly partisan BYU crowd was pretty restless.

The Cougars finally started to make some shots and began to scramble on defense. They found a way to battle back into the game and had a chance to win it but missed a shot at the buzzer.

It was the second time in three games BYU has fallen behind by 20 or more points. The Cougars rallied for an overtime win against Dayton in the Battle 4 Atlantis in The Bahamas after trailing 32-9 in the first half.

“I think we’ve got unbelievable young men,” Pope said. “They want to be good and they want to get better. I don’t think we’re having a ‘buy-in’ conversation right now. There’s confidence and belief and the ability to kind of hang in there, so those things are all being tested for sure like they are every season. This is a fun group to coach and they’re trying to figure themselves out. We’re trying to figure it out together. I think we have really, really good things that are in the future and we’ve had some stumbles so far.”

At 5-4, BYU has fallen to 189th (out of 363 teams) in the college basketball NET rankings, its lowest preseason mark under Pope.

“Losing sucks and it’s painful to lose, you know?” BYU senior Gideon George said. “But I feel like we have a lot of room to grow as a team. Just as coach was saying, we’re a young team and we’re going to get old fast. I feel like we’re going to get better fast and that’s what are we leaning on right now.”

SCOUTING REPORT

Last season BYU was 6-0 and ranked No. 12 in the country coming into a December 1 meeting at the UCCU Center against Utah Valley. The Cougars had just beaten up arch rival Utah in Salt Lake City and appeared to be in a pretty nice preseason groove.

Eight minutes into the game against the Wolverines, disaster struck when center Gavin Baxter went down with a season-ending knee injury. Facing a pair of freshmen in Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki in the post, 6-11 UVU center Fardaws Aimaq went crazy (24 points, 22 rebounds, five steals, four assists and three blocks) and led the Wolverines to a 72-65 overtime upset.

That loss — and the loss of Baxter — changed the trajectory of BYU’s season. The Cougars missed out on the NCAA Tournament and lost in the third round of the NIT.

Mark Madsen’s Wolverines (4-4) are a veteran group with a pretty big addition in the middle. Aimaq (18.9 points, 13.6 rebounds per game) transferred to Texas Tech and hasn’t played this year due to a foot injury suffered in September. UVU picked up 7-0 sophomore Aziz Bandaogo from Akron this summer. Bandaogo is long and extremely athletic, not as skilled offensively as Aimaq but a comparable defender and rebounder. He’s averaging 12 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.

“They’re really, really good,” Pope said. “They’re a veteran backcourt. It’s like those guys have been there forever. They’re really really capable scores. The frontline is super physical with unbelievable length. Their starting center (Bandaogo) is just ridiculously long and vertical and active. They have kids coming off the bench that are actually some of the most efficient offensive players in the entire country in this young season. They’re really mature and I think super hungry.”

Guards Justin Harmon (14.1 points per game), Trey Woodbury (13.1) and Le’Tre Darthard (11.4) are good scorers for the Wolverines. Darthard is coming off a 25-point performance and 7 of 11 from the 3-point line in an impressive 88-78 victory against Long Beach State.

BYU leads the overall series between the two schools 5-2.

MEN’S COLLEGE BASKETBALL

BYU (5-4) vs. Utah Valley (4-4)

Wednesday, 7 p.m. MT

Marriott Center, Provo

TV: BYUtv

Radio: Sirius XM 143/BYU Radio.org/BYU Radio app/KSL 102.7 FM/1160 AM

Live stats: byucougars.com

The Word: BYU leads the overall series with Utah Valley 5-2. … The Wolverines won last year in Orem 72-65 in overtime at the UCCU Center. … The Cougars lost last Saturday in Vivint Arena to South Dakota, rallying from a 21-point second half deficit before falling 69-68. … Le’Tre Darthard scored 25 points on Saturday as UVU topped Long Beach State 88-78. … BYU’s Mark Pope is 73-40 in four seasons in Provo. .. Mark Madsen, who took over in Orem when Pope left, is 46-46 over that same period of time.

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