Provo • Freshman guard Connor Harding has two people to thank for getting him interested in BYU — his stepmother, Alison, and his neighbor growing up in Pocatello, Idaho, a former Cougar quarterback by the name of Taysom Hill.
“My eighth-grade year, my stepmom wanted me to come to BYU’s basketball camp,” said Harding, now a 6-foot-6 freshman at BYU after a church mission to Atlanta. “My dad [Robert] didn’t want me to come. So she actually signed me up, drove me down here and got me going. I did OK and the next thing I know, coach [Dave] Rose is watching me play and I’m getting some recruiting attention from them.”
Harding committed to BYU in the summer of 2015, a day after the Cougars landed Elon University transfer Elijah Bryant, and then watched in disbelief a month later as Hill — his brother’s best friend — sustained a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in the football opener at Nebraska.
Like Hill, Harding was Highland High’s starting quarterback his senior year.
“I’ve looked up to Taysom my whole life and am really close to the Hill family,” said Harding. “He’s a hero to a lot of people in Pocatello.”
Now Harding is blazing his own trail — on the hardwoods. The gangly shooting guard who resembles the Jimmy Chitwood character from the basketball movie “Hoosiers” has made an immediate impact despite returning from his mission in late June.
He is averaging 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game for the 5-2 Cougars, who will play at 5-2 Illinois State on Wednesday night after having had their five-game winning streak snapped by Houston last Saturday.
Rose said Harding’s confidence and fearlessness have enabled him to step in and earn significant playing time early in the season.
“Confidence is really kind of an individual thing,” Rose said. “Some guys will tell you they feel it from their teammates, or from their coaches. I have watched Connor play on quite a few different teams. He is a player that has always had a great deal of confidence in himself and his ability to play.”
Harding said he watched Jimmer Fredette — another Cougar legend that drew him to the school — play for BYU and wanted to develop that same fearless attitude and confidence that the consensus national player of the year had in 2011.
“Whoever you are playing against, you have to believe that you are going to win,” Harding said. “If you don’t have that attitude, you are not fit for Division I basketball. You are not the player you need to become.”
Harding averaged 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists and led Highland to a 19-6 record and the Idaho 5A state title his senior year. He was the USA Today Idaho Player of the Year, the Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year and the Idaho Statesman 5A Player of the Year.
“His recruitment went on for quite a while,” Rose said. “We watched him play all over the country — East Coast, West Coast, down South. We followed that team around a lot.”
Junior forward Dalton Nixon is distant cousins with Harding and quickly learned after a few summer pickup games that the freshman was the real deal.
“I think he is going to have a great career at BYU,” Nixon said. “It says a lot about him to come home from a mission late in the summer and be able to be in condition to be a contributor off the bench at the start of the season.”
Harding said BYU walk-on guard Taylor Maughan, a former BYU-Hawaii player, has helped him make the adjustment. The two often stay after practice to get in extra shooting work.
“Connor plays with a ton of confidence,” Maughan said. “He is putting in the effort to get the results that he’s gotten. … He just grinds and grinds and he knows the success will come.”
BYU AT ILLINOIS STATE
At Redbird Arena, Normal, Ill.
Tipoff • Wednesday, 6 p.m.
TV • The Valley on ESPN (ESPN+)
Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 5-2, Illinois State 5-2
Series history • BYU leads 1-0
Last meeting • BYU 80, ISU 68 (Dec. 6, 2017)
About the Redbirds • Coach Dan Muller is 127-82 in his seventh season at the helm. … They are led by high-scoring forward Milik Yarbrough, who scored 28 points and grabbed eight rebounds in their 73-70 win over Boise State last week in the fifth-place game of the Cayman Islands Classic. … They are coming off a 79-62 win over Lindenwood last Saturday in which guard Zach Copeland scored 15 points and had four assists. … They are picked to finish second in the Missouri Valley Conference.
About the Cougars • TJ Haws scored a season-high 25 points and made six 3-pointers in their 76-62 loss to Houston on Saturday in the Marriott Center. Haws has a 9.5:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in his last three games. He can become the 52nd player in school history to score 1,000 career points with 10 against the Redbirds. … They are No. 7 in the nation in fewest turnovers per game at 8.9 per game. … They are shooting 28.8 percent from 3-point range.