Gordon Monson: BYU is doing something nobody thought it would in Year 1 of the Big 12

The Cougars took down the No. 11 Baylor Bears on Tuesday night, adding another victory to their impressive season.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars center Aly Khalifa (50) as BYU hosts Baylor, NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

BYU was supposed to struggle — no, make that lurch and languish and lay down — in its first season as a part of college basketball’s best conference. Some whispered that getting dunked and dunked on would be a matter of routine for the Cougars in the churn of their first lap through the Big 12.

None of that dissuaded BYU fans from scrapping as best they could to get decent season tickets for the inaugural skid through their new premier league, one that didn’t play, as the Cougars’ former conference did, in gyms better suited for Highland and Skyline High. More on the fans in a minute.

Anyone who could have gone clairvoyant and sneaked a peek months ago at the way BYU beat Baylor on Tuesday night at the Marriott Center would have been not just surprised, but impressed. The Cougars fell behind early, trailing by as many as nine points, but then flushed forward in a rage that included timely 3-point shooting, rebounding and defense, too, a component that had been largely absent in BYU’s defeat just three nights before in Stillwater at the hands and feet of Oklahoma State, a game in which the visitors yielded 93 points.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Noah Waterman (0) dunks as BYU hosts Baylor, NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

That wasn’t happening against the country’s 11th-ranked team this time around, as BYU took victory by the count of 78-71. The Bears still shot 49 percent, but much of that efficiency came in the first half, when Baylor nailed better than 54 percent of its attempts. That number dropped to 44 percent in the second half, with the Bears going a mere 1-for-10 from deep. All told, Baylor made just five bombs out of 20 attempts.

Contrast that with the Cougars, who snapped the nets from distance, making 14 treys. It would have been easy to credit the win singularly to that advantage, but BYU also out-boarded the Bears by nine, and racked up 16 offensive rebounds, which led to a mountain of extra points, so there was that.

“Our guys played free offensively,” coach Mark Pope told BYUtv afterward, further insisting that his guys were in no way “tentative.”

Considering that BYU managed not to be bothered too much by being awarded a mere nine free throws, converting six, against Baylor’s 21 attempts, with 16 makes, and it was plain to see that the Cougars won with an abundance of poise and determination. They also moved the ball in a way that winning required, garnering 20 assists versus just eight for the Bears.

i(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) drives on Baylor Bears forward Josh Ojianwuna (15) as BYU hosts Baylor, NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

BYU big Aly Khalifa, an unconventional, talented, head-banded, bowling-pin-shaped player who causes just about anybody who watches him to suppress a few chuckles and chortles en route, himself collected seven nifty assists. He also hit four 3′s.

On this particular night, BYU did not look like the team described in the preseason whispers, an outfit that would be fortunate to hang onto its shirts, shorts and socks through season one. And for that, the Cougars deserve praise.

Pope characterized the Big 12 schedule as “a grinder.”

Even so, his team currently sits at 7-6 in Big 12 games, and 19-7 overall. And have been ranked for most of the season. They have five more regular-season league games to play, two at home, three on the road, including one at Kansas and one at Iowa State.

If at least part of the measure of a team comes in the contrast of what was expected beforehand leaned up against what is being realized, BYU’s first go in the Big 12 is a rousing success. Those atop the standings might not think so, but the view from oblivion, or rather from a starting point that commenced in the West Coast Conference, makes that a declarative statement.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) BYU fans celebrate a three-pointer as BYU hosts Baylor, NCAA basketball in Provo on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024.

Another observation that is no surprise to anyone who’s been to a big game at the Marriott Center, but the crowd there deserves commendation for the riotous and ridiculous conditions, the electric environment it created. Pope put it like this: “This gym was on fire tonight.”

So, it was.

Some observers are coming around to the belief that the Marriott is rocketing itself to elite status as one of the toughest places to play in a conference that features a lot of competition for such a designation.

None of that would matter if Pope’s team poured no propane into that electricity, which, of course, is a mixed metaphor, but ridiculous riots stirred by 18,000 fans are like that — a crazy mix.

“It was a super emotional game,” Pope said, and in that emotion he added, the Cougars found “confidence.” In that confidence, they also found victory.

They found what was supposed to be in short supply in their first season in a league that was thought to be far too advanced for them — respectable wins. The Cougars won’t win the Big 12, they’re bound to lose still more games. But Pope said they are in a position to do something else nobody thought they could or would in their maiden voyage: “We’re all trying to love the moment.”

They certainly did on Tuesday night.