Eye on the Y: Breaking down BYU basketball’s defensive breakdowns

Plus: Rudi Williams back in his element and the bigger issue Saint Mary’s presents

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) South Dakota Coyotes guard A.J. Plitzuweit (10) collides with Brigham Young Cougars guard Dallin Hall (30), 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.

When it all goes bad, where do you begin?

Mark Pope questioned as much last weekend after losing to Santa Clara and San Francisco. Any momentum for a sneaky path into the tournament went away in 72 hours. The Cougars still have Saint Mary’s still scheduled twice and Gonzaga, Santa Clara and San Francisco lurking over the next month. Now, the only chance for a bid appears to be winning out or winning the conference tournament.

“It’s hard to find something that we did good tonight,” the seemingly exacerbated BYU head coach said after a fourth conference loss.

And that is the real crux of the problem right now — regardless of the big picture. Who cares about the tournament when on any given night BYU’s struggles can be so significant on both ends?

For now, we will focus on the defensive side that’s allowed 80 points in three consecutive games. Many of the issues can be traced back to BYU’s inability to consistently guard explosive ball handlers.

It is a problem that’s lingered at times this year — like against Utah Valley — but was glaring against Santa Clara’s Carlos Stewart and San Francisco’s Khalil Shabazz.

Steward and Shabazz aren’t that big, neither above 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, but they are quick and aggressive. BYU’s lineup couldn’t stay in front of them and it led to easy baskets and breakdowns. No matter how sound the rest of the defense is, it is hard to overcome guys consistently getting beat.

Look at the first case study here, where Steward gets past Jaxson Robinson. The defense was set; this isn’t a case where BYU is scrambling. The Cougars just can’t handle Stewart and it leads to a basket.

Later on, the same thing happens to Dallin Hall.

These weren’t isolated incidents either. These two clips come from San Francisco show that, where teams are exploiting BYU in one-on-one situations (even if the second one is on a fast break).

“We have to learn how to deal with the physicality and find a way to guard some of these explosive players,” Pope said.

It is extremely difficult to defend when guards are consistently able to get to the rim and distribute. Until that is fixed, BYU’s defense, no matter how steady it has been at times this year, is going to continue to struggle. This week showed why.

Rudi Williams back in his element

BYU essentially came into this season wanting Rudi Williams to be something he wasn’t. Pope admitted he asked Williams to be more of a distributor, when in the past he thrived by being a scoring point guard who is highly effective creating his own shot.

What we saw this weekend was BYU letting Williams back to the role he thrived in. He isolated himself into one-on-one situations, played in space and got to his mid-range spots. As a result, he scored 28 and 24 points respectively in two games, his best stretch of offense since coming to BYU.

Taking a deeper look at his shot chart in those games, it shows Williams was in his comfort zone. He took a total of 22 of his 31 shots from inside the arc. He went 16-of-22 from two. Many of his looks came from creating his own space.

For most, the mid-range two is not a high-percentage look. For Williams, this is what he wants. On the season, Williams both takes and makes more mid-range shots than the majority of college basketball players. Over 20% of his shots come from that range and he makes almost 40% of those attempts.

BYU's Rudi William's shot chart for the 2022-23 season (Courtesy of CBB Analytics)

This sequence here is a good example of when Williams is playing the style he wants within the flow of the offense. He uses the ball screen after he creates space for a mid-range shot. It isn’t the most high-percentage look in general — but is a high-percentage look for him. Mostly it is a creative way to get the shot he wants.

Then again here, a little bit different, but he is isolated and is able to get to the basket one-on-one.

When Williams is allowed to play this way, he almost becomes a safety valve for this offense. Routinely this weekend, the offense stalled and Williams’ ability to generate his own shot bailed BYU out of a bad possessions. He is a guy BYU doesn’t necessarily have to screen for to be productive.

For Pope, he would probably like Williams to have to do this less often. The offense has to work better overall. But it is a nice element to add when the offense is in trouble. Before this week, BYU’s safety option was getting the ball to Fousseyni Traore and hoping he could do something. Now, Pope can experiment with gives Williams the ball in space more often.

Saint Mary’s challenge

We have talked a lot this season about tempo and pace of play. BYU did a better job of pushing the pace the last two weeks.

It will meet a big challenge against Saint Mary’s, a team that plays at one of the slowest tempos in the country.

Against Saint Mary’s, most teams get around 64 possessions a game, down from around 71 where BYU lives. Pope has worried all year about what his new up-tempo style would look like against the WCC’s slower-paced teams. This is an early window.

Between turnovers and BYU’s lack of offensive efficiency, a low-possession game doesn’t bode well for the Cougars. Its best offensive showings have relied on a high volume of possessions and a healthy dose of transition. We will see how this offense matches on Saturday.