The Daily Herald’s BYU sports experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson weigh in on five of the biggest questions facing the Cougars this week:
1. WCC tourney plans
1. Do you think the West Coast Conference basketball tournament should be held in Las Vegas as planned, at home sites only or not at all?
LLOYD: It all depends on how the WCC elects to move forward. The reality is that with a week to 10 days of preparation and testing, a bubble (either in Las Vegas or at one of the home venues) is the safest way to hold a tournament during this pandemic. Most of these athletes are doing college classes online right now anyway, so it seems plausible to just have them all stay at one location. The key would be proper vetting beforehand to ensure that no one is bringing COVID-19 into the bubble and then rigorous enforcement. These men and women want to play the sports they love, so I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch for them to forego other interactions to be able to compete for a tournament title.
DICKSON: My initial thought is that it’s too risky to bring 20 teams to one location. Too many opportunities to test positive for COVID-19. Perhaps the league could play a few rounds at the home of the higher seed and just hold the semifinals and finals in Vegas. If I am Gonzaga I don’t want to play it at all. The risk is too great for a team that is favored to win the national title. The Zags really run the conference so I think some changes will be made that keeps the teams safe. That’s more important than a conference tournament.
2. Cougar hoops slow starts
2. BYU men’s basketball has lost twice to top-ranked Gonzaga this season, falling behind big early in both games before basically playing the Zags even the rest of the game. How do the Cougars avoid the early lapses?
DICKSON: The biggest problem for BYU against Gonzaga has been turnovers. The Zags don’t press much but they are long athletes with quick hands and great footwork. They get into the passing lanes and once they are in transition, forget about it. The Cougars have had some turnover issues this season but they really get magnified against Gonzaga. I think playing the No. 1 team in the country has something to do with it, too. Maybe BYU has a little too much juice at the opening tip and are trying to do too much. In any case, the Cougars have a lot of company. The Zags have made a lot of teams look bad this season.
LLOYD: Darnell makes a good point about the turnover issues, which have been particularly costly in the early going. The Bulldogs are excellent at converting on miscues and they have turned BYU’s offensive and defensive lapses into big starts in both games. I also think Gonzaga takes advantage of the weaknesses of Matt Haarms early on, which allows the Bulldogs to hit the offensive glass as well as get out in transition. As much as I like Haarms, he has struggled against Gonzaga’s low-post athleticism (as have many others). The Cougars might need to start with either a more physical presence in Richard Harward or go small and rely on Caleb Lohner and Gideon George to clear the boards.
3. New football hires
3. What do you think of Kalani Sitake’s latest BYU football coaching staff hires of Kevin Clune (linebackers) and Darrell Funk (offensive line)?
DICKSON: Clune has already been helping with the team so he’ll be familiar with the talent at linebacker and he’s already coached with Sitake. That hire seemed to be a no-brainer from the start. The Funk hire is interesting because he doesn’t really have any ties to the program. What he does have is a mountain of experience at various levels. I really think it’s important to bring new ideas and new blood into the coaching staff. Since spring football is only a few weeks away, Funk’s experience will come in handy.
LLOYD: The clear message about these additions is that Sitake wants guys who are familiar with what it takes to be successful in college football. These aren’t young, promising guys like a lot of Sitake’s hires have been in the past (Ryan Pugh and Eric Mateos with the offensive line, Harvey Unga with the running backs, Preston Hadley with the safeties, etc.). I think Sitake believes the Cougars have built the program to the point where maintaining the momentum is more important than starting fresh. It worked well with Jeff Grimes and Aaron Roderick when BYU’s offensive staff last went through big changes. I think Sitake is hoping Funk and Clune will be able to have the same sort of success.
4. Top spring football priority
4. What is the No, 1 priority for Sitake and his coaching staff for spring football?
LLOYD: There will be some high-profile skill position battles, most notably at quarterback and cornerback, but I think a much bigger need is continued development in the trenches. BYU lost quite a few contributors from both the offensive and defensive lines, although the Cougar platoon system on defense and rotational experience on offense should help. This is where we are going to see if BYU really has the depth that it has been trying to build over the past few seasons because there are going to be a lot of snaps up for grabs. If those units can play at a similar level to 2020, then the rest of the team should be in great shape.
DICKSON: I think it is important to give the quarterbacks competing for the starting role plenty of reps. The coaches probably know who they want to step forward but they need to give the right players a shot to show what they can do. The only way to see that is reps, especially for freshman Jake Conover. He needs reps with the first unit so the coaches can compare him with the guys they’ve already seen. Still, getting reps for Jaren Hall and Baylor Romney is important to see how far those guys have come. They probably won’t announce the starter until fall camp but I bet they’ll have a pretty good idea after spring football.
5. Fans at BYU venues
5. Should BYU start allowing fans in the Marriott Center and other campus venues?
LLOYD: I’m going to begin answering this question by emphasizing that outdoor venues are much safer than indoor venues when it comes to viral transmission, so I think BYU women’s soccer, baseball and softball should definitely be allowing more fans. It’s a little trickier when it comes to the Marriott Center and the Smith Fieldhouse for basketball and volleyball. I think we are getting close to a point where the restrictions can be relaxed a little bit, although the more contagious virus variants are definitely a concern. I see the reasoning, however, if BYU chooses to err on the side of being over-cautious to limit the risk of “super-spreader” situations.
DICKSON: Yes, yes and yes. There seems to be an overabundance of caution on campus. I understand why they would do that but the Marriott Center seats 19,000. You could put a few thousand fans in the arena and easily keep them socially distanced. The Jazz have started letting fans into their arena and it seems to be working. As far as other campus venues, a few hundred fans socially distanced in the Smith Fieldhouse for volleyball or for soccer at South Field would still maintain safety protocols. I understand the concern of putting people at greater risk. But I think there’s enough evidence out there to start letting the fans come to games in manageable numbers.