BYU is on the brink of drawing up something … different.
And that’s a departure, a depiction worth noting.
Painting with a broad brush here, maybe on the side of a barn somewhere, a certain picture comes to mind and into focus and onto weathered hardwood when you think of Cougars basketball.
The image is good, mostly good. It’s solid, not spectacular. It’s made up of a thousand strokes refined by a thousand players who spent a thousand hours in a thousand gyms, probably attached to a thousand churches, shooting a thousand jumpers.
Not always, but often those players are Eagle scouts, they’re a bunch of Jimmy Chitwoods, dudes who once lived down the street, who mowed your lawn or dated your daughter or TP’ed your house in Highland.
A few have varied backgrounds, some have unique stories to tell. Many of them serve missions for their church. On the court, some are a bit on the milquetoast side, playing the game with a kind of excuse-me, well-meaning, well-adjusted perspective, putting it in its proper place in the pantheon of human activities and priorities. A few have aggressive — sometimes overly aggressive — attitudes toward the game, making faces at lousy calls on the court, making enemies out of their opponents and growling at opponents’ fan bases.
Sprinkled into all of that are the rare stars, the teams with stars, such as Kresimir Cosic, may he rest in peace, of the late ’60s and early ’70s, such as Danny Ainge’s Cougars of the late ’70s and early ’80s and Jimmer’s Cougars of a decade ago. Those players and teams stand out as exceptions, what with Cosic filling the new Marriott Center with his unusual play, what with Ainge dropping 40 points on Oral Roberts and its coach declaring afterward that “he’s the best white player I’ve ever seen,” or whatever that was, and Ainge driving the length of the floor in the closing seconds, squibbing a bar of soap over the outstretched arm and hand of Orlando Woolridge to beat Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. And Jimmer going for 52 against New Mexico in the Mountain West tournament, jacking up bombs from all over the court.
There’s also that exceptional nadir plumbed back in Roger Reid’s truncated final season, after Chris Burgess — now an assistant at BYU — disappointed nine million Mormons by going to Duke, and the entire endeavor flopped into a septic container, the Cougars winning just one game.
On the whole, though, BYU teams are a blur of just sort of decent. Better than decent, of 20-win seasons but not much else. The basketball is fun, but not as much fun as it should be because the ceiling is too low, and everybody knows it.
But in Mark Pope’s first season at the helm, BYU basketball is taking on varied hues, with an altered effect. The sketch is changing. He has taken mostly the same group of players from last season, adding in tough-and-talented transfer Jake Toolson, and bumping the way they go about their business, the way they approach and play the game.
It is true, he is benefiting from an advantage of having seven seniors on his inaugural team, led by a stellar talent in Yoeli Childs, but he’s also had to re-imagine, rearrange in their minds what the possibilities are, what can be accomplished by a BYU team.
This, no longer, is some exaggerated version of ward ball, a team that just jacks up shots and hopes for the best, and plays the kind of whiff-of-Jif defense that would crush John Wooden’s soul.
Rather, it is a team that was informed upon Pope’s arrival that the coach would exact from them every bit of their collective effort, that he would settle for nothing less, that he would encourage them with praise, but kick their butts when needed.
“He came in and told us, ‘We’re going to work and we’re going to fight. I don’t care if you’re throwing up, you’re going to be in here and give it your all,’” Childs says. “I’ve never seen a coach who’s such a perfect balance of getting the most out of players, but also instilling confidence in them.”
One of Pope’s favorite words is the one Childs uses: fight.
The coach wanted to establish that in his players, plant in them a kind of useful, dialed desperation that he believed was necessary — and perhaps lacking — at BYU. Childs says he and his teammates have properly received and adopted the message.
“That’s the way we play,” he says. “We do fight.”
They also shoot — accurately, leading the country in 3-point percentage, and typically hitting better than 50% of their attempts from around the floor.
BYU is now 24-7 and ranked 15th nationally heading into the WCC tournament. Come what may in Vegas, people who do such things for a living project the Cougars as a fairly high seed in the NCAA Tournament, spurred no doubt by BYU’s recent handling of No. 2-ranked Gonzaga.
Point is, this version of BYU basketball is more of a red Ford Raptor than a beige Oldsmobile Cutlass.
Not saying the Cougars will advance through March Madness, just saying that they might. There is what there hasn’t been for so many BYU iterations of the past — a chance to do something beyond the norm, to stand out.
To paint a picture that stirs the imagination.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.