Kragthorpe: Final Four feasible for resurgent Cougars
This is no time for becoming satisfied or complacent, with the NCAA Tournament's Southeast region suddenly wide open and BYU coach Dave Rose targeting a Final Four appearance in his hometown of Houston.
Just the same, Jimmer Fredette and the rest of the Cougars already have done enough to permanently distinguish themselves.
Considering BYU's checkered history in the tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16 or not was my line of demarcation for this team. Of course, that line was blurred March 1 when center Brandon Davies was suspended.
So BYU's winning two NCAA games for the first time in 30 years is an achievement. Even with a favorable No. 3 seed, the circumstances make Rose's work the best coaching job anyone's done around here since Utah's Rick Majerus beat Arizona in the Elite Eight and North Carolina in the Final Four in 1998.
Rose and his staff outcoached Gonzaga's Mark Few and his crew in Saturday's 89-67 victory in Denver, which is saying something. Beyond that, they've regrouped this month, reconfigured their offense and re-energized their players after BYU's season could have collapsed with the loss of Davies.
In the latest episode, the staff's search for another scorer led to forward Stephen Rogers, who had totaled seven points in the previous six games. Rogers delivered 10 points in 10 minutes of the first half Saturday, when the Cougars built an eight-point lead.
"After studying film all Thursday night, our coaches really felt that we were going to need another offensive punch," Rose said. "We felt that we could spread the floor and Stephen would have an opportunity."
The coaches challenged Rogers in a team meeting Friday morning, and he delivered against Gonzaga. So did Noah Hartsock, who scored 10 points in the second half after missing 17-plus minutes of the first half with foul trouble. So did Jackson Emery, who scored 16 points after slumping lately.
"The complementary players â¦ stepped up and hurt us, which we had talked about, hoping that wouldn't happen," Few said.
It happened, and the team effort elevated Fredette. The school would have retired his jersey someday, no matter how this season ended, but taking his team to the Sweet 16 as a senior genuinely places him in a class with Danny Ainge. Since that Ainge-driven Elite Eight trip in 1981, some very good BYU teams led by Devin Durrant, Michael Smith, Steve Schreiner, Gary Trost and Fredette (last season) each won an NCAA Tournament game, but didn't really come close to advancing further.
That's why beating Gonzaga was critical to the way Fredette will be remembered and how Rose is judged now. Nobody can say Rose and associate coach Dave Rice failed to maximize a team with a generational player. Rose credits Rice for redesigning things without Davies.
"As far as X's and O's are concerned, coach Rice is terrific with our offense," Rose said. "We spread the floor a lot more. I think we've created opportunities for our guys to drive and get to the basket. â¦ It's a lot different. It's taken us â¦ time."
The offense sure worked against Gonzaga, mostly because the Cougars made shots. Now, it gets interesting. Thursday in New Orleans, BYU will draw No. 2 Florida in a rematch of the Cougars' double-overtime win last March. The winner will play No. 4 Wisconsin or No. 8 Butler, which eliminated No. 1 Pittsburgh, for a Final Four berth in Houston.
That's where some observers were ticketing the Cougars, before the Davies incident. They might still get there, for Rose's sake.