Colorado Springs, Colo. » A little more than a month ago, after shooting 1-for-11 from the field in a painful loss to Utah State, BYU senior Jonathan Tavernari walked into coach Dave Rose's office and asked to be yanked from the starting lineup.
Rose obliged, inserting sophomore Noah Hartsock at the power forward spot in place of the proud-but-mercurial Tavernari, a preseason all-Mountain West Conference pick who acknowledges he had to do some serious pride-swallowing to suggest the change.
The Cougars have not lost since, piling up 11 straight wins and pushing into the top 20 in the national college basketball polls for the first time in 22 years.
BYU (16-1, 1-0 MWC) puts that national ranking on the line Wednesday night against Air Force (8-7,0-2) at Clune Arena (6 p.m. MST, The Mtn.).
The Cougars still have that lofty ranking and impressive record because of Tavernari, who has heated up his game and found his lost scoring touch the last two weeks while star guard Jimmer Fredette has been slowed and eventually sidelined by mononucleosis.
Tavernari "has made a great adjustment in his game, and found a real niche to help our team, which is exactly what he wanted to do when he came into my office a month ago," Rose said. "He said he just wants to figure out a way to help our team win."
Recognized for his stellar play of late with the MWC's Co-Player of the Week award Monday, Tavernari has averaged 17 points and 7.3 rebounds a game since Fredette became ill, while still coming off the bench. In the 14 previous games, he was averaging 8.9 points and 4.4 rebounds.
While Fredette was dropping 49 points at Arizona, Tavernari was bottoming out offensively. Having averaged almost 16 points a game while earning all-MWC third-team honors last year, he had just two points in 22 minutes.
With the emergence of Hartsock and freshmen Tyler Haws and Brandon Davies, Tavernari was starting to become an afterthought offensively, although he continued to contribute defensively and with his underrated ability to rebound.
But when the Cougars needed him to light up the scoreboard the most, he delivered, scoring 17 points and grabbing nine rebounds in a 77-73 win over UNLV and following that with a 19-point, six-rebound performance against UTEP.
"If you look at the overall weight of the games, I have been able to make the plays at one end or the other, but the team wasn't needing my [scoring] a whole lot, because Jimmer and Jackson [Emery] and Ty were doing their thing," Tavernari said. "But with Jimmer going down, and some of the other guys weren't making as many shots, so somebody had to pick up the scoring load."
Rose said the encouraging thing is Tavernari has done it without taking ill-advised shots, a maddening habit that has plagued him since arriving in Provo. Tavernari has gone 18-for-30 in his last four games.
"JT had a terrific week, his best week of the season so far, as far as consistency is concerned," Rose said. "You never have a lack of effort with JT. Maybe, earlier in the year, he was a little mentally fatigued. He has been playing basketball for two and a half straight years without a break. We got him on the bench, and kind of limited his minutes a little bit. Other guys stepped up, and now he is really playing well."
Tavernari said if knew exactly why he is playing better he would have fixed it long ago and avoided the slump.
"I just think I needed to see the ball go through the hoop a few times, just to get my groove and my confidence back," he said.
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