Provo • As the BYU men’s basketball team looks to its future in the Big 12 with a sparkling new recruit in hand, the Cougars returned to their roots Friday night with a win over old rival San Diego State at the Marriott Center by a score of 66-60.
The Cougars ended the week with a win after landing the signature of four-star shooting guard Collin Chandler, who is the No. 36-ranked player in the class of 2022 per the 247sports composite, on Wednesday. The 6-foot-5 Chandler is the highest-rated recruit in the history of the program and has fans buzzing about his potential.
In the short term, BYU outlasted a swarming SDSU defense by stepping up on defense themselves.
The game was back-and-forth throughout with both defenses allowing few opportunities to play in transition. As the game wore on, it developed into a defensive battle where every basket earned in the half court became more precious. Neither team shot the ball well, as both shot 39% from the field. The shooting woes were even worse behind the 3-point line (BYU: 22%, SDSU: 14%).
The Cougars made the Aztecs pay on the offensive glass, scoring 17 second-chance points.
BYU head coach Mark Pope noted that SDSU was undefeated last season when outrebounding its opponents. The Cougars had 42 rebounds compared to 38 for the Aztecs.
“We knew that we had to win on the glass, which is saying something because this is an elite-level rebounding team,” Pope told reporters postgame.
With its efforts on the glass and on defense, BYU showed that it is not solely reliant on the 3-point shot to compete against good defenses.
“You’re not going to beat San Diego State going 4 for 18 from the 3-point line. You’re just not. But these guys did,” Pope said.
The Cougars also reined in the turnovers after surrendering 15 in its win against Cleveland State earlier this week. BYU turned it over 11 times on Friday.
“For us to play against a San Diego State and only have 11 turnovers, only four in the second half, with the pressure and disruption and all the things they exert ... it was a great effort and a great basketball game,” Pope said.
Friday’s win was a statement that the Cougars are ready to compete with NCAA Tournament teams, even when shots aren’t falling.
How far can Barcello carry the Cougars’ offense?
Alex Barcello looked like the only Cougar who could consistently get to his spots against the SDSU defense. The senior guard drilled both of his 3-point field goals in the first half despite being picked up in the backcourt after every made Aztec basket.
BYU’s offense may only be as productive as Barcello, who finished with 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting, can make it in 2021. Te’jon Lucas (13 points, 2-of-12 FG) and Seneca Knight (8 points, 3-of-7 FG) each had nice moments off the dribble, but struggled to consistently generate rim pressure against SDSU’s long, athletic wings. Lucas had a costly mistake late, over-dribbling and giving up an easy layup to keep the Aztecs in the game.
The Cougars looked in danger of getting a shot clock violation on more than a few possessions while Barcello rested.
Still, Barcello was able to create enough offense to put the Aztecs away. The senior single-handedly broke SDSU’s press and made good decisions with the ball.
The senior splashed a massive 3-pointer on the move to give BYU a three-point lead inside the four minute mark. A few minutes later, he snaked through a pick and roll, rose and nailed a jumper just above the free-throw line to put the Cougars up five. When the Cougars need a big shot, they’ll look to Barcello. Tonight he proved he can hit them.
“They’re a really great team” Barcello said postgame. “I think just staying with our offense, keeping the flow ... our team as a whole did a really good job of being aware of that.”
He’s a smart player who almost never takes a bad shot, and the Cougars may need him to be more aggressive against top-tier defenses like SDSU.
A breakout performance for Fousseyni Traore
Mali-born freshman center Fousseyni Traore had the best game of his young career, scoring 9 points on 4-of-6 shooting and grabbing eight rebounds with five coming on the offensive glass. Traore navigated foul trouble in the first half, but showed his prowess as an offensive rebounder and roll threat throughout.
Traore caught and finished a beautiful feed from Barcello and converted a post up on the left block with a soft hook shot on the next possession. After 6-foot-11, UNLV transfer Richard Harward suffered cardiovascular issues that could keep him sidelined for an extended period of time, Traore showed that he can impact games inside, even as a freshman.
Traore denied 6-foot-7 forward Keshad Johnson at the rim in the second half, eliciting a roar from the crowd, and looked active on defense all game.
Senior Gavin Baxter started the game at center, but Traore played more minutes throughout. He may receive a bigger role going forward, as long as he can stay out of foul trouble.
“We had a rookie out there having to hold down the fort in an NCAA Tournament game out here,” Pope said. “That’s as real as it gets. ... He’s really talented.”
Caleb Lohner made perhaps the biggest basket of the game, snaring an offensive rebound and flipping it back up and in over a defender with less than two minutes on the clock. He only scored six points on 3-of-12 shooting, but was active throughout on both ends.
“We had an ability, at least tonight, to focus on what mattered,” Pope added. “I’m really proud of that because that’s actually a telling thing about a team.”