Kragthorpe: Noah Hartsock carries BYU as Jimmer watches
When the BYU Cougars visited EnergySolutions Arena, Jimmer Fredette's range extended to his seat behind the bench, and Jackson Emery's lock-down defensive work took place in the hallway outside the locker room after the game.
This is a new bunch of Cougars, a basketball team that's gradually discovering itself after losing the two famous guards who continue to be mentioned in the same sentence so often that they're almost a singular entity. "We know that Jimmer/Jackson is gone," senior forward Noah Hartsock was saying Saturday, "so we've got to find different players to step up and make plays."
By the look of things in a 79-65 win over Oregon, Hartsock himself is the No. 1 solution to that search. With a career-high 23 points, plus 12 rebounds and four blocked shots, he's becoming BYU's most dependable player as a self-described "late bloomer" who's emerging just in time for this team.
At the risk of stereotyping, with his balding hair and short-stepping style of walking, Hartsock looks more like a West Coast Conference player than a Pac-12 athlete. The funny thing is, judging by results such as Saturday's, the league the Cougars have joined might be better overall than the Pac-12 this season.
Oregon is a projected upper-tier finisher in the Pac-12, but the Ducks (4-2) were overwhelmed by Hartsock and the Cougars (6-2). BYU's story begins with Hartsock, who has totaled 19 blocks in eight games which apparently is considerably more than his practice production. "I don't get it," teammate Nate Austin said with a smile, when asked about Hartsock's rejection quota in games.
Clearly, opponents underestimate him, which works in his favor. "I don't have the greatest leaping ability," said the 6-foot-8 Hartsock. "I'm not the tallest guy on the court, usually. I've just got to use a little bit of smarts."
It helps that he grew up in Oklahoma with two older, taller brothers. "I worked on timing," he said. "You've just got to realize where the ball's going to be when you jump. â¦ I try to get 'em when they're closer to the ground."
It's working, and so is his offensive game. In the Jimmer era, Hartsock was mostly a spot-up shooter, finding openings when defenses were preoccupied with Fredette. These days, he's scoring most of his points inside, via rebounds and post moves. He's averaging nearly 17 points, almost doubling his contribution of last season, when fewer shots were available to the masses.
BYU coach Dave Rose welcomes Hartsock's emergence. "He's been consistent, and his teammates are really starting to look for him," Rose said. "He seems to be our go-to guy. It's hard to kind of manipulate that as a coach. Players have to kind of accept that."
This two-week stretch of games with Oregon, Weber State, Utah and highly ranked Baylor will gauge BYU's progress. As of Saturday, the Cougars were growing on everybody. This is becoming an intriguing team. BYU produced one of its worst offensive games, shooting 39 percent from the field. Yet the Cougars created steals, blocked shots, rebounded the ball and were just persistent and diverse enough to score 79 points against a team that had lost only to Vanderbilt.
Brandon Davies struggled inside and Charles Abouo shot poorly, but reserves Stephen Rogers and Austin combined for 25 points in support of Hartsock's work.
Later this month, the Cougars will begin to discover how they fit into the West Coast Conference. As of Saturday, they sure looked like they belonged in the top half of the Pac-12.
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