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BYU 1-on-1: Is this the best Cougar women’s basketball team ever?

By Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson - | Jan 26, 2022

BYU's Paisley Harding (13) drives past San Diego's Steph Gorman during a West Coast Conference women's basketball game at the Marriott Center on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. (BYU Courtesy Photo)

The Daily Herald’s BYU sports experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson answer five of this week’s big questions regarding Cougar athletics:

1. Which BYU men’s basketball player do you think has made the biggest strides this season?

LLOYD: I think freshmen Atiki Ally Atiki and Fousseyni Traore certainly deserve to be lauded for their progress but I’m going to select junior forward Seneca Knight. In many ways, I think his path to success wasn’t as straightforward as it was for Atiki or Traore because he came in as a transfer and had to attempt to find his niche in what Mark Pope is trying to do with the Cougars. In the early part of the year, I wasn’t sure whether he was going to be able to mesh well with the other players. I thought his biggest asset was his ability to play defense but recently he has started to find his rhythm on offense as well. He scored 14 points in the wins over San Diego and Portland, and I think he is getting much more comfortable. I think that will make a big difference for BYU down the stretch.

DICKSON: The Cougars were lucky to get Fousseyni Traore from Wasatch Academy. The pandemic limited the amount of time he could play the summer before his senior year, which allowed Mark Pope and his staff to really get in on Traore. At most, he probably would have played just a few minutes a game his freshman season. The losses of Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter thrust Traore into not only more minutes but eventually a starting role. He’s really BYU’s best offensive threat in the paint and has posted three double-doubles in West Coast Conference play. A lot of people I’ve talked to have compared his trajectory to that of Yoeli Childs, who also ended up playing more his freshman season due to injuries to Kyle Davis. Traore is smart, talented and one of the best freshmen in the WCC.

2. Will the Cougars men’s basketball team face Gonzaga on Feb. 5 without any more losses?

DICKSON: While BYU is 17-4, there have been plenty of games where they’ve pulled away in a close game. So far in WCC play the Cougars have started slowly in most games before rallying to win late. That’s tough to reproduce over and over again. Santa Clara is a very strong offensive team that could jump out to a big lead on Thursday. San Francisco feels like they let one get away a few weeks ago at home and will give BYU a really tough game in the Marriott Center. It’s likely the Cougars will win all three games heading into hosting Gonzaga, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they take at least one “L.”

LLOYD: I’m going to say that the answer to that question is yes, although I expect a scare at Santa Clara on Thursday. The Broncos are 12-7 overall and 9-3 at home. Sure, they got shelled by Gonzaga … but who in the WCC doesn’t? Santa Clara gave Saint Mary’s a tough game on the road but needed overtime to beat San Diego at home. Bronco junior guard Jalen Williams is a handful but this is a balanced team that has four players averaging in double digits. I think that will be an even bigger test than hosting San Francisco in Provo on Feb. 3.

3. Is this the best BYU women’s basketball team in history?

LLOYD: This is by far the most respect the Cougar women’s team has ever gotten, being ranked at No. 16 and being talked about as a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. But in my opinion, this team isn’t the greatest in program history … yet. That’s because it has to get the work done in March to earn that designation. Every team works all season to be able to get a good spot in the NCAA tournament. That’s the showcase, the time when great teams elevate themselves with their play on the court. I’ve seen BYU get to the Sweet 16 twice before losing to powerhouses Tennessee and UConn, but those teams did it as underdogs. This year the target looks like it will be on the Cougars and I want to see how they handle that pressure in the Big Dance.

DICKSON: The other two teams that made the Sweet 16 (2001 and 2014) were good but didn’t really dominate during the regular season. Both of those Cougar teams got hot at the end of the regular season and rode that momentum into the postseason. I feel like this season, BYU has been more dominating than either of those teams. In fact, I would compare them more to the 2015-16 team with Lexi Rydalch and Kalani Purcell that was 27-5 at one point. Certainly this is one of Jeff Judkins’ deepest and most talented teams. I feel like their potential might be better than any previous team, too.

4. Do you expect the Cougar football team to add many players on Signing Day next Wednesday?

DICKSON: The coaches have worked really hard to close on the majority of the recruiting class back in December. There are several prospects (JC defensive backs Roman Rashada and Korbyn Green, along with Florida prep wide receiver Dom Henry) who BYU is putting a big push toward right now. The main goal is to create as much competition as possible at every position. That’s how you get better every day, a mantra among many BYU teams. The players who enrolled in January get a huge head start so I’m not sure many of those who sign in February will make a very big impact in 2022.

LLOYD: The advent of the early signing period stole the thunder of the February date and I, for one, am glad. Recruiting is absolutely vital for teams but is vastly overhyped in the public arena. It’s been clear that Kalani Sitake and his staff have been active in trying to add to the 19 players that signed in December and I do expect a few more commitments to be finalized. But I expect there to be only four or five more new faces to join the recruiting class. What will be interesting is whether the Cougars will be able to land any athletes from out of state, since so far the 2022 class is very Utah-centric.

5. Since BYU will have to adapt its football schedules when it joins the Big 12 in 2023, which non-conference games do you think should be prioritized?

LLOYD: The only one that needs to be played every year is the Utah game, which should be set up like Florida-Florida State. The Cougars and the Utes have enjoyed by far the most success and it’s clear to me that it will benefit both squads even more to meet every season now that both will be in Power 5 conferences. The other regional games are most problematic, although I would like to see regular BYU-Utah State matchups and the occasional BYU-Boise State contest in the mix. The reality is that with an eight or a nine-game conference schedule, the opportunities for other games are limited under the current structure. I still want to see the Cougars face teams from the Pac-12, Big 10, ACC and SEC occasionally, so something has to be sacrificed. I think the reality is that BYU won’t see the Aggies and Broncos as often.

DICKSON: It’s a brave new world when it comes to football scheduling for BYU moving forward into the Big 12. AD Tom Holmoe has been a genius setting up an independent schedule but that all changes now. I was kind of sad to see the Boise State series going away. I would like to see the Cougars play in-state schools Utah and Utah State as much as possible, but it doesn’t seem likely going forward, especially with the Utes. They had already been making noise about how difficult it was going to be to continue to schedule BYU. Ultimately, Holmoe has to do what’s best for the program and that’s not always going to be playing in-state schools. Some of it depends on if the Big 12 is going to play a nine-game or eight-game schedule. Remember, Texas and Oklahoma isn’t set to leave for the SEC until 2025. Things are bound to get complicated when it comes to scheduling for the Cougars.

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