BYU finished its regular season schedule on Saturday with a 76-66 win over the Portland Pilots. Brandon Davies led the Cougars to victory with his third consecutive 20-point game.
The win over the Pilots was the last time Cougars seniors Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo will take to the Marriott Center floor. Hartsock, unfortunately, was forced to watch the game from the bench as he recovers from a knee injury.
Abouo, on the other hand, scored 16 points while also grabbing eight rebounds as he pulled within one win of tying Jimmer Fredette as the all-time leader in total wins played in at BYU.
BYU finished the regular season with a 24-7 record, pulling tantalizingly close to a sixth straight 25-win season. The Cougars will play the winner of Pepperdine-San Diego on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the WCC tournament as they make a push for a conference championship and a guaranteed berth in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
As BYU prepares for the postseason and what could be a precarious week on the "bubble", it provides the perfect opportunity to reflect on the 2011-12 regular season, its first in the WCC.
What went well for the Cougars? Where did they fall short? And what does the team need to do in the upcoming postseason to challenge the recent postseason success led by Coach Dave Rose?
Let's break it down player by player, position by position.
After transferring from UCLA and redshirting during the 2010-11 season, Matt Carlino burst on to the scene at BYU with an 18-point performance against nationally ranked Baylor. Carlino averaged 13 points and 4.7 assists per game and carried the Cougars to a key road victory late in the season over San Francisco with 30 points, including the game-winning basket. Carlino, at times, has struggled with turnovers and poor shot selection, but he has given Rose a solid starting point guard option for the next 3-plus seasons.
Craig Cusick emerged from last year's practice squad to tally a solid 16 minutes per game for the Cougars this season. After starting three early-season games for the Cougars, Cusick's value to the team was his reliable production off the bench. Cusick's steady play at the point was evidenced by his 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Cusick also contributed some timely three-point shooting, including three second-half three-pointers on the road at Loyola Marymount, which were key to the road victory over the Lions.
Nick Martineau played in only 17 games and never logged more than seven minutes in any of those games. However, even in his limited playing time, the Marriott Center fan favorite is 3-for-5 from the three-point line this year.
Although the point guard position experienced a significant drop-off from losing last season's national player of the year, Fredette, BYU's point guards surpassed preseason expectations, given the limited collegiate playing experience coming into the season.
Coming into the 2011-12 season, senior Charles Abouo was expected to be the key defender on the perimeter after the loss of defensive standout Jackson Emery. Abouo improved year over year in almost every major offensive statistical category and scored in double figures 18 times. However, Abouo's foul trouble issues led to inconsistent scoring outputs in many of BYU's big WCC games this year (at home against LMU and Gonzaga and both Saint Mary's games). Abouo started every game for the Cougars this year and set the all-time BYU record for consecutive games played (137 and counting), posting three double-doubles and narrowly missing three more.
Prior to Matt Carlino taking over the reins at point guard, Anson Winder started six consecutive early-season games, leading the Cougars to a 5-1 mark in those games and averaging approximately 4.0 assists per contest. After playing sporadically during the first part of the WCC conference season, Winder made the transition to starting 2 guard for the last seven regular-season games as Dave Rose elected to use Winder's defensive abilities in the starting lineup (Winder had 14 steals in the last 10 regular-season games). The redshirt freshman struggled from the three-point arc, with the exception of the Buffalo and the Pepperdine games, when he tallied nine of his 22 three-pointers on the year.
Brock Zylstra tied a BYU record with six consecutive three-point field goals at home against San Francisco and made at least four three-pointers in six games. However, like many of the Cougars' perimeter players, Zylstra struggled mightily with inconsistent shooting performances throughout the year, including a 1-for-19 slide in the middle of the WCC schedule. Will his 20-point outburst against Portland launch Zylstra into a much-needed scoring option for the Cougars in the postseason, or will it be another peak on the up-and-down season for the Rose's sixth man?
Stephen Rogers has missed significant time this season with a knee injury and has played double-digit minutes in only one game since the Dec. 10 game at Utah. After providing a scoring spark off the bench in 2010-11, Cougars fans were hoping that Rogers would replace some of the outside scoring punch from Fredette and Emery. Rogers showed signs of being a big-time perimeter scorer after torching Oregon and Weber State with 16 and 15 points, respectively. Rogers' regular season, unfortunately, was derailed shortly thereafter, but Rose is optimistic that Rogers will be able to contribute in the postseason.
True freshman Damarcus Harrison filled in admirably in the Cougars backcourt during the preseason as the team waited for Carlino to be eligible. Harrison scored 11 points against Longwood (including three three-pointers) and had a positive performance against nationally ranked Wisconsin (nine points). But as the season went on, minutes were harder to come by for Harrison as Rose developed his rotation at the wing with an Abouo-Zylstra-Winder combination. Harrison did provide a key offensive spark in the home contest against Gonzaga with 5 first-half points, 3 rebounds and 1 steal in only eight minutes of play.
Inconsistent offensive production from the Cougars' wings is a reason why BYU finds itself squarely on the bubble. BYU's wings must shoot efficiently from the perimeter for the Cougars to advance in the WCC and NCAA tournaments.
Noah Hartsock inched his way up the Cougars record books all year long as he became BYU's third all-time leading shot-blocker (170) and currently stands seventh in career games played (130). Hartsock and Brandon Davies started every game for the Cougars on the front line until Hartsock had to sit out the final regular-season game against Portland. Hartsock led the Cougars in many offensive statistical categories, but most notably in points per game (16.8) and free throw percentage (84.3). A healthy and productive Noah Hartsock will be critical to any postseason success the Cougars may have.
Brandon Davies made the most of his return from an honor code suspension at the end of last season to join Hartsock as an all-WCC first-team selection. After some inconsistent performances during the preseason, Davies recovered to average 18 points and eight rebounds per game in conference play. Davies only had one single-digit scoring effort in WCC play (at SF) and scored 20 points or more seven times. For the most part, Davies was able to avoid the foul trouble issues that plagued him during the 2010-11 season prior to his suspension while being a versatile defensive player in the post.
True freshman and recently returned missionary Nate Austin filled the void of injury-riddled Chris Collinsworth by providing a spark off the bench when Rose was forced to take out one of his all-conference performers. Austin consistently filled up the stat sheet when he entered the game challenging Davies for the team lead in rebounds per minute. However, Austin also consistently filled up the personal fouls column of the stat sheet, thus limiting his floor time and fouling out in five games. If Austin is to continue to improve into the postseason and throughout his Cougars career, channeling his energy without getting into foul trouble will go a long way in his development.
After returning from a mission and transferring from Utah, Josh Sharp saw significant minutes during the preseason only to see those minutes dwindle as the season progressed as his role diminished to "cleanup" minutes at the end of blowout victories. Sharp has been an effective rebounder in his limited action this year but has also been prone to picking up quick fouls.
Chris Collinsworth saw limited action in the first two games of the season but has 29 consecutive DNP's due to effects from his multiple knee surgeries in the last couple of years. Rose hopes that Collinsworth will be ready to go next year to help fill the void Hartsock will leave in the middle.
Hartsock and Davies have been outstanding and very well could be the best frontcourt tandem in the West. Depth became an issue when Collinsworth went down for the season, but Austin was a pleasant surprise in the post.
Following the overtime loss to Florida in the Sweet 16 to end the Cougars' 2010-11 season, here is what was facing Dave Rose as he glanced to the 2011-12 Cougars team:
Dealing with an expiring contract to coach at BYU; losing the national player of year; losing BYU's all-time steals leader; facing the uncertainty surrounding the potential return of his suspended starting center; leaving the MWC; heading to the WCC; welcoming eight incoming freshmen with only two returning seniors; and losing his associate head coach and close friend to a head-coaching position at UNLV.
When you look at it that way, the fact that the Cougars have a shot at an NCAA tournament berth is a coaching feat to put on Rose's resume. Rose would bring in Mark Pope to further the development of the strong Cougars frontcourt returning from last year's team and get ready to work with the multiple big men returning from LDS missions.
The Cougars have struggled defending the three-point shot, which has been a significant reason for the majority of their seven losses, but the Cougars have succeeded, for the most part, in playing the up-tempo style that has made BYU a consistent winner during his coaching tenure.
Injuries have posed a hurdle for the team this season as multiple key players have missed significant playing time throughout the season. Rose has never had the full complement of a team with Matt Carlino at the point and a healthy Stephen Rogers and Chris Collinsworth.
The coaching staff will be looking to lead the Cougars to Rose's first postseason conference tournament championship this weekend, but after what he and his staff have done so far this season, nothing is insurmountable.
Despite a somewhat surprising 24-win regular season, the 2011-12 edition of the BYU Basketball team has had to deal with ineligible players, injuries, inconsistent outside shooting, poor perimeter defense, ineffective play against top competition and an overall inexperienced team.
The Cougars rode the coat tails of the All-WCC frontcourt of Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies on their way to a 12-4 WCC record and a tentative slot in the NCAA tournament, according to the majority of college basketball experts and bracketologists.
However, after winning a first-round game in each of the last two NCAA tournaments, the bar has been set higher for Dave Rose and the Cougars.
OVERALL GRADE: B
BYU will need to learn from and improve upon the inexperience and flaws it has shown throughout the season (three-point defense, three-point shooting, shot selection), stay healthy (Hartsock, Rogers et al), and play to its strengths (Davies/Hartsock, quick game tempo) if the Cougars are expecting to get off the bubble and deep into the NCAA tournament.