If you listen to The PB&J Report podcast (and at this point, why aren’t you?), then you know I have a method of sorts when it comes to BYU sports — I am the eternal pessimist.
Don’t get me wrong, no one bleeds blood as Cougar blue as mine. But just because I love the team doesn’t mean I blindly believe they will win every game — that would just make me ignorant (or a Ute fan). Experience is knowledge, and I’ve experienced too many overtime losses, tournament no-shows and blown calls to believe in the Cougars as hard as I pull for them.
So when I picked San Diego State to beat our men’s basketball team at home last night, much of it was the eternal pessimism speaking. But more than that, I really didn’t think we had the team to beat them. San Diego State has size, athleticism, and is defensively minded. While I thought we had a great player in Jimmer Fredette, I also felt our team was too flawed to really compete with talent of that caliber. BYU is small, has trouble rebounding, and has absolutely no depth — or so I thought. In other words, I thought we had a great player, not a great team.
The story after last night’s win was — and will continue to be — Jimmer Fredette. He had 43 points in an amazing offensive performance. We’ve seen Jimmer do this before, and while it was awe-inspiring, don’t be fooled — the win was a team effort. As I sat watching the game, I was incredibly impressed by what I saw — not by Fredette (who was certainly impressive), but by the other Cougars on the floor.
Now, the rest of the team was horrible offensively, especially Jackson Emery who, after hitting almost every three-pointer in warm-ups, couldn’t even come close in the game. Brandon Davies was the lone stand-out other then Fredette, showing off his impressive arsenal of low-post moves (including a shot utilizing his left hand, which I previously believed to be a prosthetic) and notching 14 big points.
It was not the team’s offense that impressed me, but their tough defense and determination. The Aztecs actually hit shots when they were open. The problem was they weren’t open very often. While SDSU’s Kawhi Leonard had 22 points in the game, he worked hard for every single bucket as freshman Kyle Collinsworth (with a significant disadvantage at height, weight and athleticism) played excellent defense on him. The rest of the team was equally impressive, forcing 12 turnovers and blocking 9 shots.
Rebounding-wise, the team fought hard for every single board. Any time there was a lose ball, guys like Emery, Charles Abouo and Noah Hartsock were diving on the ground fighting for it. Bench players like James Anderson and Abouo were huge as they locked down their defensive assignments, getting a combined 5 blocks and 7 big rebounds between the two of them.
If before the game you had told me it would be a physical, defensive game, I would have put my life savings on the Aztecs to win — and I would have lost.
What we saw last night was not the product of superior talent, but superior coaching, toughness and heart. Coach Dave Rose has to take the credit for mentally preparing his team to grind it out with the No. 4 team in the country.
In many ways, what we saw last night was the team reflecting the heart of its coach. As a player on Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma team, Rose was able to earn playing time not through superior ability, but through his hard work and hustle. As he took the head coaching position at BYU, the team was coming off a 9-21 season, and interest in Cougar basketball was at an all-time low.
He is now 147-41 as BYU’s head coach and has made BYU into a perennial Top 25 (now Top 10) team. Then there was the pancreatic cancer he fought off just a year and a half ago, a dreadful disease that has a 5 percent survival rate. If anything, what we saw last night from the Cougars was a team embodying the best qualities of a beloved coach and team motivator. The team was able to channel that into an impressive on-the-court performance.
As I’ve said before, coming into last night’s game I believed we had a great player and a great coach. But as I left the game, I realized we may indeed have a great team. The team (other than Jimmer) had a horrible night offensively — and still won the game by 13. Jackson Emery won’t go 0-5 from three again. The team won’t likely shoot that bad again. (And if they do, there’s always Jimmer to bail them out.) If the team can continue to play at this level defensively, they’re going to win a lot of games and scare a lot of teams.
This BYU team has the best player in college basketball. It has a great coach. It has confidence. And, more than anything, it has heart. After last night, this team truly believes it can win every game — and after years of pessimism, I believe too. Go Cougars.
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