BYU men’s basketball has not learned how to win, and solutions are ‘pretty far away’

The Cougars may have hit their lowest point in the 69-68 loss to South Dakota.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) South Dakota Coyotes forward Mihai Carcoana (13) has a few words with Brigham Young Cougars forward Atiki Ally Atiki (4), in basketball action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the South Dakota Coyotes, at Vivint Arena, in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022.

Provo • Twice.

That’s how many times BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope has said the team just isn’t very good. The first time was after a big comeback win over Dayton to close a tournament in the Bahamas. The next was after another big comeback fell short at Vivint Arena against South Dakota.

BYU hasn’t even played 10 games yet, and already the coach has repeatedly lamented the limitations of a team that wants to contend for a West Coast Conference championship its final season before going to the Big 12.

The Cougars lost by only one against South Dakota, but fell behind by as many as 21 in a listless first half where they played absolutely no defense and let the Coyotes do whatever they wanted.

“That just hasn’t been us,” Pope said about his team’s lack of defense. “It’s not supposed to be the makeup of this team. So we have to go back to the drawing board a little bit there. It would rank up there with like six or seven other things that are super disheartening.”

And on offense, BYU again shot poorly from the 3-point line, which has been a major issue so far this season.

When asked if the loss to South Dakota was the lowest point of the season, Pope said he did not know. But based on his mood and his saying the team will need to “skip a couple of beats” in order to be competitive going forward, it may very well be the lowest.

BYU fans will note that it’s still early in the season, therefore it’s unreasonable to think the Cougars are in a Chicken Little situation. But as Pope himself said, the next two games on the schedule are much more difficult than South Dakota, and they need to figure things out quickly.

Pope said Saturday that his players all want to improve and are trying to figure out how they can individually help the team compete at a higher level. But there’s also a lot of frustration in the locker room right now, and not a lot of answers.

“There’s a price to winning,” Pope said. “We all talk about the words, but very few of us ever get to really know what that is in our guts, like really know what that means. I think that’s where we are feeling our most uncertainly right now is how far away we are from actually understanding.”

In other words, the Cougars simply don’t know how to win right now. The team has 12 new players, and Spencer Johnson has a knee injury that has kept him out the last three games and potentially for the foreseeable future. So growing pains are understandable.

But Pope’s words after the previous quote told a much more troubling reality: There doesn’t seem to be an expeditious path forward due to the lack of experience and leadership on the team right now.

Most Telling Quote

“I think that you learn it from one of a couple of ways. You can learn it because you have great leadership. You can learn it because you have unbelievable experience. Or you can learn it because the game just bludgeons you until you get so desperate that you’re willing to do anything to win. We’re pretty far away from any of those solutions right now.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

What’s telling about those words is that last bit — “pretty far away from any of those solutions.” That’s not an encouraging sign if you’re a BYU fan.

Most Eye-Popping Stat

1 of 14. That’s how BYU shot from the 3-point line in the first half against South Dakota. The Cougars finished the game shooting 21%.

Overall, BYU is shooting 32.9% on the season, which ranks 220th in the country, per the NCAA.

Some would argue the stat should be the Cougars made 19 3-pointers — a school record — against Westminster last week. But it’s Westminster. That game didn’t even count for the Griffins.

NCAA NET/KenPom rankings

NET: 190

KenPom: 77

The NET ranking is the more dire of the two here. While it’s the first NET ranking release of the season, it shows that there isn’t much confidence in the Cougars right now. It should be noted, however, that the ranking has BYU at 4-4, but the team’s actual record is 5-4.

Schedule Look-ahead

• Wednesday: Home vs. Utah Valley

• Saturday: In Las Vegas vs. No. 21 Creighton

• Dec. 15: Home vs. Western Oregon

• Dec. 17: Home vs. Utah

• Dec. 20: Home vs. Lindenwood

• Dec. 22: Home vs. Weber State

We picked the next six games because that’s what remains of BYU’s nonconference schedule. At 5-4, these next six could prove critical for the Cougars if they want to get anywhere near the national conversation once conference play rolls around.

Creighton and Utah will likely be favored. Lindenwood, Weber State and Western Oregon are probably wins for the Cougars. UVU is a toss-up. BYU will need to compete hard and maybe even upset either Creighton or Utah to get out of this stretch feeling good about itself. It does help that five of those six games are in the Marriott Center.