Provo • At first glance, BYU basketball appears to look the same as it ever has.
Good. Limited. Vanilla.
You know the story and the history. Exceptions there have been over the past two decades, a few isolated years when the Cougars cranked it up a couple of notches, the most memorable being Jimmer Fredette’s reign. On the other end, there was trouble in the vacation of wins.
In the mix, everything had settled on down to more winning than losing, but … nothing exceptional, not enough winning to make boundless anyone’s expectation, not enough elasticity to stretch anyone’s imagination. Mark Pope arrived prior to this season, taking the wheel of the program, intending to alter the trajectory around here.
There does seem to be a different energy at the Marriott Center these days, a recharged hope — an evolution rather than a revolution — that something positive is happening, something different. That much was evident on Saturday night when the Cougars faced WCC opponent San Francisco, taking a 25-point lead, letting it slide toward disaster, but bouncing back to beat the Dons for a fourth-straight win — by the count of 90-76.
“It’s a huge win for us,” Pope said. “… We played 25 minutes of high-level basketball. I want us to do it for 40 minutes.”
The sizable crowd boosted BYU en route, pleased to see it respond to and rebound from it’s one-point road loss two weeks ago to the San Franciscans. For the folks here, that narrative is both encouraging and discouraging, noting defeat to an opponent that should not beat the Cougars, but also victory to partially make up for the earlier goof.
That’s been a bugaboo for BYU since entering the WCC — unexpected losses to teams from schools whose combined enrollments could fit into the Marriott Center. Somehow that seems beneath a basketball endeavor in Provo, a proud tradition.
Losing to Gonzaga and even Saint Mary’s is one thing, losing to Loyola Marymount or San Diego or San Francisco is another.
This season, the Cougars had been dominated by Gonzaga on the road, and split games with the Gaels, away and home, having won a two-point thriller in this same building just last week.
Spirits had risen in the aftermath.
San Francisco, 5-5 in league coming in, hovered behind BYU (7-3) in the standings.
Make it 8-3 for the Cougars now, 19-7 overall.
Yoeli Childs, recently named one of 10 finalists for the Karl Malone Award, annually given to the nation’s top power forward, played a major role on Saturday night. He scored 32 points and made key plays.
TJ Haws added 13 points and Jake Toolson got 13.
“We had a little lapse,” Childs said. “We just have to grow from that.”
BYU was efficient in its perimeter shooting, per its norm, in addition to feeding the ball to Childs, who freely roamed inside and out. All together, the Cougars matched 56-percent shooting with mostly rugged defense.
Pope was pleased afterward, fully aware that he remains in the primary stages of his attempt to bump BYU to higher ground, even as he borrows the previous regime’s players.
Either way, the construction, or reconstruction, is a whole lot more fun, and completely more evident, when victory is the reward for the heavy blocks being shoved into place.
And while Gonzaga stands above the rest of the league, and will go on being the standard, the target, for the Cougars to aim at and reach for, it would be more than sufficient this first season for Pope’s team to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, something BYU hasn’t done for a fistful of years.
The coach is emboldened for the moment by what might be.
“We are a dangerous team right now,” he said. “… We’re chasing lofty goals.”
The nights and weeks ahead feature games against standard fare in the WCC — LMU, San Diego, Santa Clara and Pepperdine, with a home game against Gonzaga wedged in.
Then comes the conference tournament, a deal the Cougars have never won and in all likelihood will not win this time around. If they do, hallelujah for them. If they don’t, they’ve shown enough to be considered a contender for the runner-up position, and if they get that, they’ll likely qualify with a decent seed for March Madness.
And for Pope, in his first go-round, that would be exceptional enough, an adequate trajectory alteration, a flavor different than vanilla.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.