Provo • Dave Rose said it 100 times if he said it once.
BYU’s basketball coach was proud of his ninth team in 2013-14, after it broke from a rather mediocre 9-7 record through December to finish in a tie for second in the West Coast Conference race.
The Cougars won two games in the WCC tournament before suffering a double-whammy in the championship game, losing star guard Kyle Collinsworth to a season-ending knee injury and the contest 75-64 to Gonzaga.
Awarded a surprising 10 seed in their seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in eight years because of their strong nonconference schedule, the Cougars (23-12) showed glimpses of competitiveness against Oregon in a Round of 64 game, cutting a 15-point deficit to three with 12 minutes remaining before losing 87-68 in Milwaukee last week.
Before suffering the double-digit losses in the two most-important games of the season, Rose was calling it an unqualified success.
“This has been a real challenge,” he said. “The early-season schedule, we played really good teams, and we were in all the games, and had a chance to win them, except for a few. And when you don’t win, you gotta dig deep and find out where you are going to go, and what you are going to do, and this group has come together pretty well.”
It was the first time since they went 20-9 in Rose’s first year, 2005-06, that the Cougars won fewer than 24 games, but it could be argued this season was better than last, when BYU padded its total with three NIT wins. Was a blowout loss in the NCAAs better than a run to the NIT semifinals in New York City?
The Cougars seemed to think so in a somber locker room in Milwaukee.
“This is always the goal,” junior guard Anson Winder said. “You always want to get to the tournament. It’s been a great experience. I’m happy we got here. It’s a disappointing feeling to lose by [19 points], but it will give us motivation to come back stronger next year.”
Speaking of which, “next year” starts now for Rose and his staff, which faces some difficult decisions in the next month or so.
Teams are allowed to have 13 players on scholarship, and as of this week 14 scholarships are seemingly spoken for. There are no seniors on the current roster; starting forward Eric Mika will leave May 14 on a two-year mission to Italy.
Five new players join the program, or become eligible to play in 2014: UNLV transfer Jamal Aytes, Wake Forest transfer Chase Fischer, returned missionaries Jordan Chatman and Isaac Neilson, and Ryan Andrus of American Fork High.
Obviously, something has to give.
Rose will conduct his traditional postseason interviews with all the players in his program over the course of the next few weeks, and might have to nudge one or two of his six rising seniors out the door.
“We will figure out [the scholarship situation] in the spring,” Rose said in December when the 6-foot-6 Aytes left UNLV for BYU. “The spring is always an interesting time. There are a lot of options, and usually you go into the spring and you might have no scholarships, and then you have a scholarship or two available. Sometimes you go into spring and you think you have two or three and you end up with three or four. So we will just see how that works out in the spring, and go from there.”
The 2014-15 nonconference schedule could be just as difficult as last year’s, highlighted by a trip in November to the Maui (Hawaii) Invitational against a field that includes Sweet 16 entrants Arizona and San Diego State, along with Pittsburgh, Kansas State, Missouri, Purdue and Chaminade. Another Sweet 16 team, Stanford, will visit the Marriott Center, along with rival Utah and NCAA Tournament qualifier Massachusetts.
A look ahead
BYU Basketball in 2014-15:
Seniors • Tyler Haws, Matt Carlino, Anson Winder, Nate Austin, Josh Sharp, Skyler Halford
Juniors • Kyle Collinsworth, Chase Fischer
Sophomores • Frank Bartley IV, Luke Worthington, Jamal Aytes (eligible in December)
Freshmen • Jordan Chatman, Isaac Neilson, Ryan Andrus
Non-scholarship players • Graham Pingree, Andrew Johnston
Players currently on missions, or scheduled to leave • Eric Mika, Cory Calvert, Nick Emery, Braiden Shaw, Jakob Hartsock, T.J. Haws, Dalton Nixon, Jake Toolson, Payton Dastrup.