Provo • Despite the mildly unexpected loss of its best player to professional basketball last spring, it is NCAA Tournament or bust for Dave Rose’s team this season, the coach said Thursday at a media gathering to kick off the 2017-18 campaign.
“There is no question the goal of this group is to get back to the NCAA Tournament,” Rose said.
The Cougars last played in the Big Dance in 2015, losing to Ole Miss in the first round.
“It is our top priority. I know there are certain things we have to achieve before we get to that point, but coach talked to us today and said the school hasn’t experienced a three-year drought from the tournament since he’s been here. … So that’s always in the backs of our minds, not necessarily for us, but for coach,” said sophomore forward Payton Dastrup, who dropped 40 pounds in the offseason in a bid to replace Eric Mika in the starting lineup.
Mika is playing professionally in Italy after leading BYU in scoring 21 times and rebounding 16 times last season as the Cougars went 22-12 and lost in the first round of the NIT.
Rose said the loss of Mika and other factors will have the Cougars playing differently on offense this year, perhaps a little more deliberately, and more free-flowing. They won’t be dumping the ball into the low post as much as they did last year, and working off Mika’s talents.
“We’ve made a real commitment to becoming a better halfcourt offensive team, so you are going to see a lot of changes just because of that,” Rose said. “There will be a lot more space on the floor, just because of the personnel.”
The Cougars will play more “positionless” basketball, because players at the traditional power forward position are more perimeter-oriented who can stretch the floor and create more space for the guards to penetrate and get to the rim.
The Cougars won’t necessarily play a lot of four-guard lineups although their biggest personnel strength is their returning guards, Elijah Bryant, T.J. Haws and Nick Emery, “but I think that will be an option for us,” Rose said. “You will probably see a little bit of that.”
Defensively, the emphasis will be on cutting down opponents’ opportunities to take 3-point shots, not just defending them.
“We need to be better at taking away that shot against us altogether,” Rose said, mentioning that the team’s 3-point percentage defense was decent last year, but the sheer bulk of 3-pointers made against them added up when the Cougars were countering with 2-pointers and free throws.
Overall, Rose called his 15-player roster, which includes no seniors and just one freshman (Rylan Bergersen of Boise, Idaho) “an interesting mix of a lot of guys.” The core, he said, will be the three aforementioned guards and sophomore forward Yoeli Childs, who averaged 9.3 points and 8.2 rebounds last year and will be called on to pick up the slack in Mika’s absence.
Junior college transfers Jahshire Hardnett (Chipola) and Kajon Brown (Lee College) will add athleticism and defensive prowess, and Rose said Hardnett is like many of the small, quick, penetrating point guards who have given the Cougars fits in the past and will be extremely valuable in practice.
Inside players Dastrup and Braiden Shaw are back, joined by four returned missionaries — Zac Seljaas, Luke Worthingon, Dalton Nixon and Ryan Andrus, who injured his knee recently and will be out a couple weeks after minor surgery.
“We’ve gotta be good early, we gotta be good in the middle, and we gotta be great late,” said Rose, mentioning the disappointing end to the 2016-17 season several times and noting how “we got licked pretty good” by Saint Mary’s in the WCC semifinals and Texas-Arlington in the NIT.
BYU’s first official practice is Monday, and the season opener is on Nov. 11 at the Marriott Center against Mississippi Valley State.
BYU Basketball Important Dates<br>Monday • First official practice of the 2017-18 season<br>Oct. 25 • Cougar Tipoff instrasquad Game, Marriott Center, 7 p.m.<br>Nov. 1 • Exhibition opener vs. Westminster, Marriott Center, 7 p.m.<br>Nov. 8 • Exhibition game vs. Colorado College, Marriott Center, 7 p.m.<br>Nov. 11 • Season opener vs. Mississippi Valley State, Marriott Center, 7 p.m.