As the NCAA tournament approaches and conference play heats up, the hierarchy of college basketball contenders slowly begins to come into focus. The cream eventually rises to the top.
The BYU Cougars are off to one of the best starts in school history. Their impressive performance through the season’s first two months is generating considerable buzz. The Cougars are good, but just how good are they?
With that in mind, let’s play a little game; a blind resume of sorts.
Top 25 in both polls
RPI is 21
Leads the country in wins
Perfect record in conference
14 game winning streak
Three time defending conference champion
Led by one of the top point guards in the nation
Top 25 in both polls
Strength of Schedule is 146
Seven wins over teams with an RPI of 200 or lower
Twelve wins over teams with an RPI of 100 or lower
Have a 1-1 record against the RPI top 100 on the road
Haven’t won a conference championship since 2001
Have no likely NBA players on the roster
Which team is BYU?
If you picked Team A, Congratulations. You are absolutely correct.
If you picked Team B, Congratulations. You are absolutely correct.
Both sets of characteristics describe this year’s BYU squad.
The Cougars have 19 wins, more than any other team in the country. They are a perfect 4-0 in conference and have won 14 consecutive games. They have won at least a share of the regular season conference championship each of the last three years.
Jimmer Fredette is one of the best college basketball players in the country. Before a recent illness set him back, he was gaining steam as a dark horse National POY candidate.
The Cougars national ranking appears wholly justified.
That being said, the doubters have ammunition.
BYU has done most of its damage against a far-from-daunting schedule. The Cougars have a couple of nice wins, but none that are truly impressive. They have been remarkable consistent, but far from spectacular.
Over the last few years, BYU has failed to validate regular season achievements with postseason accomplishments. They have failed to win the MWC tournament championship despite earning the top seed each of the last three years.
Their last NCAA tournament victory came in March 2003.
Optimism and skepticism continue to jockey for position.
So just how good are the Cougars? Are they a Sweet Sixteen caliber team? A potential Final Four dark horse? Or are they headed for another first round disappointment?
The success BYU is enjoying can be summed up with one simple word:
They shoot, pass, defend, score, and execute at a remarkably efficient level.
The Cougars lead the Nation in free throw percentage. They are eighth in three point percentage, third in overall shooting percentage.
They also rank among the best in the country in scoring offense (eighth), scoring margin (second), field goal percentage defense (26th), rebound margin (23rd), assists (13th), assist turnover ratio (17th), and turnover margin (24th).
All of these numbers are explicitly related to execution; crisp, efficient execution.
It comes as no surprise, then, that BYU comes in at No. 4 in stat guru Ken Pomeroy's College Basketball Power Rankings .
In fact, each of the Cougars' starting five ranks in the top 100 nationally in the kenpom.com individual player overall efficiency ratings.
Unspectacular but effective Noah Hartsock leads the way at No. 9, followed by Jackson Emery (No. 11), Tyler Haws (No. 52), Jimmer Fredette (No. 81), and Chris Miles (No. 100).
If BYU continues to play with such dazzlingly monotonous efficiency, the sky is the limit for the Cougars.
It is not a coincidence that BYU has exited the first round of the NCAA tournament each of the last three years. The Cougars have not been able to overcome a glaring imperfection in postseason play.
Athleticism is Cougar Kryptonite.
There is one surefire way to derail the BYU freight train of efficiency. The Cougars can be rattled, flustered, and/or overwhelmed by quick, strong, aggressively athletic teams.
The key to taking down BYU is to make them uncomfortable; take away easy baskets; force turnovers; force the Cougars to make plays.
BYU is without a doubt one of the best teams in the country at knocking down open looks, capitalizing on fast break opportunities, and playing fundamentally sound basketball.
They have yet to prove, however, that they can overcome adversity when over-matched athletically in a tournament atmosphere.
This year's version of the BYU Cougars has an all-too-familiar ring to it. The Cougars played a few good teams in the non-conference schedule, but no great teams. They entered conference play unproven, despite an impressive record.
BYU is on an accustomed path. They've been here before.
The Cougars will likely earn at least a share of the MWC regular season title once again. They'll probably protect their home court and play well enough on the road to finish atop the standings.
They'll advance to the NCAA tournament and the match up will be announced.
Will they win in March?
Probably not. At least, not if they are matched up against an athletic team from the Big 12. Maybe they'll get lucky this year and draw a Big 10 team, or even a Pac 10 team. They fare well against the Pac 10.
They have their chance to demonstrate this team is different when they visit San Diego State and New Mexico in the next week. A pair of victories would silence the critics indefinitely.
Until proven otherwise, BYU basketball is what it is, and 'what it is' is also what it was; what it has been.
They are a good, solid, well-coached, consistent basketball team, built to win in February and disappoint in March.