Provo • A little less than two weeks ago, BYU’s basketball team had recovered nicely from an early December stumble and was seemingly headed toward another 20-win season.
The Cougars had answered a rare three-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak, including double-digit victories over in-state foes Utah State and Utah. They had seemingly solved the defensive problems that led to them giving up 113 points in a 10-point loss at Weber State.
Then the Cougars re-opened their Mountain West road tour, which began back in November with an 86-70 loss at No. 7 Nevada, and all those deficiencies resurfaced.
Now there are serious doubts whether coach Dave Rose’s 8-6 team can earn a fourth-straight trip to the NIT, let alone an NCAA tournament berth.
“Moving forward, we have to be able to, as coaches, find the group of guys that are going to be really consistent and allow us our very best chance, possession by possession, to play the best minutes that we can play,” Rose told the BYU radio sports network. “Those are all things we have to consider going into the second half of this year.”
BYU was thumped 90-81 by San Diego State on Saturday night, a week after falling 92-90 in overtime to UNLV. In both games against their former Mountain West rivals, the Cougars gave up way too many 3-pointers.
UNLV made 13, including Noah Robotham’s fadeaway at the buzzer from NBA range, while SDSU made 12. Against the Aztecs, a new problem emerged: turnovers. The Cougars committed 18. The Aztecs came up with eight steals, many of which led to fast-break layups or open 3-pointers.
“The biggest stat is they scored 27 points off our turnovers,” Rose said. “That’s a tough number to handle.”
The players flew home for Christmas immediately after the game, and will reconvene in Provo on Wednesday night for practice and begin preparing for another difficult road game — on Saturday morning (10 a.m., MST) at No. 19 Mississippi State. The 11-1 Bulldogs have won eight straight, but were less-than-impressive Saturday in a 67-63 win over 6-7 Wright State, a showing that perhaps caused them to drop two spots in the Associated Press Top 25 college basketball poll.
“We are on a roll here with the same kind of [opponents],” Rose said. “Hopefully our challenge will be similar and our results will be better.”
The game in SEC territory will give the Cougars’ strength of schedule a boost, although it has been relatively easy to date. BYU’s strength of schedule is 179th in the country, according to Jeff Sagarin’s College Basketball Ratings.
That the Cougars have lost six games before Christmas is puzzling, especially after they walloped the 9-3 Aggies 95-80 and the 6-5 Utes 74-59 and were defending much better. The six losses before the holiday break is the most they’ve had since they joined the West Coast Conference.
The previous high was five, after they fell 100-96 in overtime at No. 11 Oregon on Dec. 21, 2013.
Speaking of the WCC, the league looks as strong top-to-bottom as it has ever been — with the exception of struggling BYU and rebuilding Saint Mary’s. Gonzaga (11-2) is ranked No. 7 nationally, while San Francisco (12-1), Loyola Marymount (11-2) and San Diego (10-3) are all threats to knock BYU and Saint Mary’s (8-6) out of their traditional spots below the Zags in the league standings.
BYU (8-6) at No. 19 Mississippi State (11-1), 10 a.m. MST
BYU’s pre-Christmas records since joining WCC
2018 — 8-6
2017 — 11-2
2016 — 9-4
2015 — 9-4
2014 — 10-3
2013 — 8-5
2012 — 8-4
2011 — 10-3