All the great success stories I remember have a common theme: Victory only comes after surmounting difficult challenges.
That is the theme for the BYU men’s basketball team in 2019, something I could tell the program has obviously discussed in the face of coaching change, roster turnover, suspension and injury.
“There has been a lot of stuff going on in a short amount of time,” Cougar senior forward Yoeli Childs said during the Cougar Media Day on Wednesday. “But all the great stories start like that. It never starts off with, ‘everything was perfect and then they just got even better.’ That’s not really how it goes. I like to look at it as a sign of things to come. That’s how all the great comeback stories come.”
I like that approach, since I see it as the only logical mentality for this team to have.
On paper, this BYU team has every reason to struggle:
- There isn’t a lot of length or jaw-dropping athleticism.
- Childs was hammered unfairly by the NCAA and has to sit out the first nine games.
- The coaching staff has the players transitioning to do things in different ways.
- Even the recent history of the program hasn’t been impressive with no NCAA tournament bid since 2015.
With all those factors in play, it shouldn’t be surprising if the Cougars are fighting to be a .500 squad in 2019-20.
But I would absolutely be disgusted if BYU was willing to consider such a path as acceptable, no matter what obstacles the Cougars are facing.
“We’ve seen a lot of adversity so far but guys just want to win,” BYU senior guard TJ Haws said. “When you have guys who just want to win, it doesn’t matter what happens. We’re going to do whatever it takes to win games. I’m sure these won’t be the last unfortunate things that happen to us but I think our resilience and the way we have responded has been great so far. We’re going to have to find out ways to win. We’re all in and we’re all going to do it.”
So let’s put aside the doubts and the daunting challenges for a second.
Imagine a story where this squad of newcomers and veterans, unknowns and resurgents, suddenly gets things clicking.
Maybe there is an upset that gets attention in the first couple of months, like knocking off UCLA or Kansas or Houston.
Maybe there is a stunner over perennial powerhouse Gonzaga during league play.
Maybe BYU rattles off a win streak of eight or nine games, the momentum building with each showing.
Maybe against all odds the Cougars find themselves actually back in the NCAA tournament.
What a riveting story that would be for the entire college basketball universe!
I know you and I would definitely enjoy watching it unfold.
If that script is somehow going to become a reality, it will be because BYU head coach Mark Pope was able to get the Cougars to take advantage of their biggest strengths.
He said Wednesday those will be guarding and making the right play.
I think guarding is the obvious one. Every team wants to be good defensively, since it means you can give yourself a chance even if your shots aren’t dropping.
I was much more intrigued by his emphasis on playing smart basketball.
“This team has the capacity to do the right thing, make the right effort, make the right rotation, every single possession,” Pope said. “It doesn’t mean you will have the right outcome but it means guys will be diligent enough to do the right thing and be in the right spot on every possession. If we can do that, we’ll be a rare talent in the country and it will give us the chance to be really successful.”
He said he didn’t know when he took the BYU job that this group of Cougar hoopsters had the potential to be the disciplined squad that he now sees.
“We have guys who are desperate to win right now,” Pope said. “For example, Yoeli Childs made a huge sacrifice to come back here and it’s manifesting itself in his desire to grow that skill — and it’s a skill. It hasn’t always been his best skill. I’ve recognized it more and more as we’ve gone through the offseason. If we can do that great, it would be really special.”
I asked Pope how that skill gets developed. He said the players are holding each other accountable and the leaders — like Childs — are working to do everything right, to set the tone by example.
Childs said that if all that comes together, watch out.
“We’re looking at it from an efficiency and feel standpoint,” Childs said. “We have a team with talented players, guys who can shoot, pass and put the ball on the floor. There is no reason we shouldn’t get a great shot. We have guys who can make tough shots but it’s the concept of not settling. It’s about getting to the right spots, moving the ball and when you are open, owning it.”
He’s caught glimpses of how that type of precision and understanding can completely change the way a team plays the game.
“What’s really beautiful is when all five guys on the court are doing that,” Childs said. “I feel we are doing that a lot lately and we are getting better at it. When all five guys are making the right decisions, there is no guesswork. Everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing because everyone knows what is coming next. It’s a fun way to play.”
We are barely into the prologue of the 2019-20 Cougar men’s basketball season, so there is a lot left to be written.
I just hope it proves to be an tale worth reading.