Team Personality: Experienced is a word that immediately springs to mind when thinking of Brigham Young. The Cougars carry six seniors and all of them get significant floor time. Each of the seniors knows his role, and that has allowed their younger teammates to grow into their own as the season has gone on. This team is much better now than they were at the beginning of January. That experience and growth has been key to BYU’s late-season 8-game winning streak. This team rarely beats itself and knows how to fight back in games they should have no business winning. Even in their latest loss, to San Diego State, the Cougars’ refuse-to-give up attitude made the game much closer than it should have been.
Conference Tournament Chances: BYU has the 1 seed for the Mountain West Conference Tournament based on their season sweep of Air Force. That allows them to avoid playing both the Falcons and UNLV until the Final, as the Falcons and Rebels will have to battle each other to get to the title game. BYU does have a potential match-up with SDSU again in the semi-final round, but the Aztecs are a much less imposing foe away from Southern California than they are at home.
BYU has to continue to make good decisions on offense. When the Cougars play the inside/out game with sophomore post Trent Plaisted and senior Keena Young inside, and a plethora of good outside shooters (the Cougars average 41% from behind the arc as a team), they are much more efficient on offense. BYU isn’t blessed with a great deal of athleticism, so a match-up with Air Force tends to be easier for the Cougars than, say, UNLV or San Diego State.
Has to be on the Floor: Senior Ausitn Ainge has bided his time during his stay in Provo and this season he is rewarding Head Coach Dave Rose for his faith. Ainge is a strong calming influence on this team and it shows in his point guard play. He leads the team in both assists and turnovers, but averages twice as many successes.
The calming influence extends to his own shooting touch under pressure, as Ainge has hit more than his share of clutch buzzer-beaters and game winners. Here’s a stat: the Cougars average almost .42 more turnovers per minute when Ainge isn’t on the floor. That translates to roughly 10 more turnovers per game without their floor leader.
Crunchtime Crutch: If we were speaking strictly offensively, then it would go to Ainge, but what Ainge brings to the offense, sophomore Lee Cummard brings to the defense. Cummard is by far the most athletic player on the team and he usually draws the toughest defensive assignment night-in and night-out. Even with all the work he has to put in on the defensive end of the floor, Cummard is a key ingredient of the offense. He is 3rd on the squad in points and rebounds, he’s the team’s best free throw shooter and he’s got the third-highest three point shooting percentage on a good shooting team. Let’s put it this way; if Cummard isn’t on this team then Ainge isn’t even in position to hit big shots.
Impact Newcomer: This one’s easy; its got to be Brazilian Jonathan Tavernari. Why? He’s the only freshman who gets any minutes. He provides the Cougars with about 12 minutes per game and the kid can shoot! He is averaging 40% from beyond the arc on 73 attempts in only 280 minutes. Tavernari averages 7 PPG, which, if he played all forty minutes would translate to over 22 points per game. He even rebounds well, averaging almost 10 per forty minutes.
Potential Pitfall: BYU has been almost unbeatable at home, even against more athletic teams. But make no mistake: the Cougars do not match up well with a team of athletes. Playing away from home only seems to exacerbate this issue. The Cougars will be hard-pressed to win against teams that can slash to the hoop and that get out and run. The Cougars also go as their shooting goes and when they aren’t hitting from the outside, which is rare, they ten to shoot more from the outside rather than work the ball into the post for a higher percentage shot.
How to Reach the Sweet 16: Like most other teams entering the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars’ fate will be based in large part on match-ups. They won’t be very successful against teams that have players that can create shots on their own, so potential first round opponents like Villanova, Virginia and Arizona will give the Cougars fits. BYU has to be sure to play within themselves, which means working for good shots, rebounding well and playing solid defense. BYU can frustrate more athletic teams, but they have to be patient and utilize the keys to success they had during their 8 game winning streak. Rose is a good coach who reads game situations well so they aren’t likely to be outmaneuvered during a game. Still, this team has surpassed the expectations of many by simply winning the conference title. Getting to the Sweet 16 would be icing on the cake.