Provo • It was definitely one of the lowest points of Dave Rose’s 14 seasons as head men’s basketball coach at BYU.
Fourth-ranked Gonzaga walked into the Marriott Center the last day of January and handed the Cougars their worst home loss in Rose’s tenure, a 93-63 beatdown in front of a national television audience and a somewhat disappointing crowd of 15,396 — which was easily fewer than 10,000 when the stomping mercifully ended.
It was BYU’s third loss of 19 or more points in the month of January, its seventh double-digit loss of the season, and it dropped the Cougars’ record to a pedestrian 13-10 overall, 5-3 in West Coast Conference play. BYU’s chances of getting one of the top two seeds in March’s WCC tournament seemed impossible.
The Cougars haven’t lost since. And now BYU (18-10, 10-3) is the odds-on favorite to capture that all-important No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, which brings with it a double-bye into the semifinals.
A lot of credit has to go to Rose — who will be going for his 200th Marriott Center win on Thursday night when third-place San Francisco (20-6, 8-4) visits — and his staff for turning the ship around with one of his best coaching jobs in recent memory.
Rose never bites when asked where this season ranks in that regard, but he did acknowledge after practice Wednesday that “it is really gratifying to watch a bunch of guys fight through hard stuff and then get rewarded a little bit.”
Assistant coach Tim LaComb said categorizing coaching work and seasons with that perspective is not something the staff ever focuses on, but he agrees that Rose’s focus on the positive aspects of the rough December and January performances has strengthened the team.
“We have faced challenges this year that we probably haven’t ever faced before,” LaComb said. “We scheduled ourselves into that. I think coach Rose and his staff have done an unbelievable job of just getting the team through these things. You don’t have a two-week timeout where you can get everything straightened out. You just have to still play. And I think on the fly, it is has been pretty cool to see the growth of the guys, and the growth of the team.”
Rose also mentioned that rugged five-game stretch of games played away from the Marriott Center in which BYU went 1-4 and was blown out at San Diego State, Mississippi State and Saint Mary’s and lost in overtime to UNLV.
“For me, personally, we put these guys through a ringer with the way we scheduled some of these games. I wish it would have come out a little differently. But that was a tough run,” Rose said. “I feel in some ways really responsible for that, and they hung in and responded and came back in and got a couple wins and now we are on a little bit of a run. … And that is really good to say, because at one time I didn’t know what these last two weeks would actually mean. We are battling for some really good stuff, and hopefully our guys will keep playing how we have been playing.”
Rose had already tinkered with his starting lineup more than any other season prior to the Gonzaga loss — inserting McKay Cannon into his top five to slow down Utah State’s Sam Merrill in December was a significant move that produced a 95-80 win — but the adjustments he made directly after the now-No. 2 Zags left town have proved just as beneficial.
Rose started freshman Gavin Baxter in the place of team captain and popular season teammate Luke Worthington two days later, and Baxter delivered 25 points and 10 rebounds, both career-highs, in the 67-49 swamping of LMU. His emergence has powered the recent run.
Junior guard Nick Emery finally got his first start of the season over 14-game starter Connor Harding the following game at Portland, and has become a more consistent contributor than when he was coming off the bench.
“We just wanted to make a change and see how it affected everybody,” Rose said. “Connor has responded really well to it. Now I think our guys have a real trust for each other. I like the feel, not just in the huddle, whether we are ahead or behind or on a run, or hold back the dam and stop the bleeding. I think the guys come into that huddle with a real trust in each other, a real confidence that we are going to get it done.”
Rose has deferred taking credit for the turnaround, but assistant coaches and players say the coach’s even-keel, ever-positive approach has paid off. Junior forward Zac Seljaas said that Rose and his staff never lost confidence, even after the Gonzaga fiasco. The Cougars get another shot at the Zags on Saturday in a game in Spokane that doesn’t appear winnable, but the focus this week has been on holding off San Francisco.
LaComb said Rose’s multiple battles with cancer have changed him for the better.
“I think he’s a kindler, gentler coach Rose, since that point,” LaComb said. “I think that carved out a lot of negativity. … More than anything, the best thing we’ve done this year is, instead of just piling on with negativity, we have tried to hunker down and make sure we fill our guys full of positivity and look at things that can actually be accomplished.”
Which brings the Cougars to perhaps the most important game of the season. San Francisco embarrassed BYU 82-63 a month ago and can snap the Cougars’ five-game winning streak with a repeat performance Thursday night.
“They played us really well last year in here, and we were really fortunate to win,” Rose said. “And they beat us really good at their place. So, the last 50 minutes of basketball or so, they have been pretty dominant. We are excited to get started and play it again.”
SAN FRANCISCO AT BYU
At the Marriott Center, Provo
Tipoff • Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV • BYUtv
Radio • KSL 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
Records • BYU 10-3, 18-10; San Francisco 8-4, 20-6
Series history • BYU leads 19-7
Last meeting • San Francisco 82, BYU 63 (Jan. 19, 2019)
About the Dons • They are currently tied for third place with Saint Mary’s in the WCC standings, a game and a half behind BYU for second. … Coach Kyle Smith is 62-36 in his third season on The Hilltop. … They are led in scoring by guards Charles Minlend (14.9 ppg.) and Frankie Ferrari (14.3 ppg.) and in rebounding by 7-foot center Jimbo Lull (5.3 rpg.). .. They are coming off a 68-63 overtime win over last-place Portland at Chiles Center last Saturday night.
About the Cougars • Junior G TJ Haws is the WCC Player of the Week after he averaged 24.0 points, 7.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game last week and made 19 of 20 free-throw attempts. .. They are seeking to win five consecutive games for the first time since November. … Junior G Zac Seljaas went 4 of 4 from 3-point range in their 70-62 win over Loyola Marymount last Saturday and has made eight of his last 14 attempts from beyond the arc.