BYU is dancing thanks to an NBA draft tip, an analytics guru and an Australian basketball team

Keegan Brown and Aly Khalifa have engineered BYU’s Big 12 surprise. Now they are ready to take their new system to the NCAA Tournament.

Provo • The tip came in from the Sacramento Kings’ brain trust.

The NBA franchise’s analytics department, led by two BYU grads armed with a draft model designed to find diamonds in the rough, spotted a player Cougars analytics guru Keegan Brown might like: an obscure 6-11 big man out of Charlotte.

The recommendation came with a warning: He wasn’t the prototypical transfer you bring to the Big 12. He didn’t run so much as he lumbered. His vertical leap would not impress many.

But, man, could Aly Khalifa pass.

Stationed at the top of the key, he could move a shooter open with his eyes and deliver a bullet. He could feather in a bounce pass behind defenders for easy layups. He had just enough touch to keep defenses honest (shooting 38% from three as a sophomore).

“I watched his film and I’m like, this is everything coach wanted in a big,” Brown said. “I put him at the top of the list of our recruiting efforts and we did everything we could to get him. Luckily, we did.”

But one of college basketball’s biggest surprise stories owes to more than luck, an out-of-shape big man, and a stressed-out analytics guru. It took a plan.

One that nearly no one believed in — except for them.

A dismal start

Last summer, Brown was in his second-floor office across from the Marriott Center fretting. He was a year into his offensive overhaul and the results were lagging.

During Brown’s two-day job interview with head coach Mark Pope, he promised to deliver a high-volume transition game. Get out in space, fire away from deep before the defense is ready and do away with half-court sets.

The numbers, Brown argued, bear out. BYU would get 1.3 points per possession in transition. The payout for a half-court, pinpoint execution game wasn’t nearly enough.

Pope signed off, needing more offensive firepower if he was to contend in the Big 12.

“In the WCC, the reality was you had to play reproducible basketball every single game,” Pope said. “Because if you dropped a random game, it was kind of a death knell. You were trying to have the highest floor you could possibly have. And we knew that was going to be turned on its head. If we struggled to have the highest floor, we might never win a single game. So we were really shooting to have the highest ceiling.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Men's Basketball Director of Video & Analytics Strategy Keegan Brown, in basketball action between the Nicholls State Colonels and the Brigham Young Cougars, at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

But BYU didn’t play fast in 2022. It played frenetic. A young group careened to 14 turnovers a night. It lost to South Dakota, Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount.

In BYU’s final trip through the West Coast Conference, the Cougars went 7-9 and missed every postseason tournament.

Pope, a former Columbia med student, knew logically there’d be a learning curve to a new offense. But inside he seethed as his team looked out of control and there was nothing he could do. After a few early season losses, he sighed as he admitted, “We are going to steamroll our way through this turnover issue.”

“It goes against every instinct as a coach,” Brown said.

That made Brown’s next ask even harder: He wanted to keep the same core group around for another season. He would only add to the periphery, a strategy hinged on securing a commitment from Khalifa.

To Brown, Khalifa was the missing indigent to his finely tuned, analytically balanced, offensive concoction.

While Khalifa wouldn’t be feared athletically, he was the lynchpin that would space the floor, generate three after three and make his system whir to life. The quarterback he’d been missing.

Internally it still raised questions. Continuity is good, but staying on a bad course isn’t.

“If you have 100% continuity and you were a bad team last year, and then you’re just below average the next year, it doesn’t help,” Brown conceded.

But Brown trusted the numbers. He saw junior guard Jaxson Robinson and thought he could improve his offensive efficiency with better looks. He thought a 6-11 Noah Waterman could be the perfect three-and-d player for his run-and-gun system if he’d just buy into his role. Dallin Hall could be more effective if defenses weren’t collapsing down on him.

Khalifa could help with all of that, getting Robinson open threes and giving Hall room to work. It just needed a chance, Brown thought.

But even then, the strength of the Big 12 Conference loomed.

Brown worried.

“Just don’t finish at the bottom,” he said.

The sign of life

A trip to Trieste, Italy, first eased Brown’s concerns. Pope recommitted himself to Brown’s numbers game, telling his team he wanted to hoist 35 3-point tries a night.

It was extreme, sure, but that was how BYU was going to win in the Big 12: on the variances, on finding an edge in a niche, like shooting and making more 3-pointers than anyone else.

In the second game on their international tour, playing the top-division Serie A team Pallacanestro Trieste, Robinson was the best player on the floor. He had 26 points, six steals, four rebounds and two assists. BYU scored 84 points.

“Jaxson hit two or three 30-footers,” forward Spencer Johnson said. “Just played really, really well. And I think everyone could see at that point that all the work was paying off.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Jaxson Robinson (2) is guarded by Texas Longhorns guard Chendall Weaver (2), in basketball action between the Brigham Young Cougars and the Texas Longhorns, at the Marriott Center, on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024.

This was without Khalifa as he came back from the knee injury. Brown imagined the offense with the big man on the floor.

The analyst returned to the United States with confidence, but he wanted to add one more weapon.

He was going over NBA models and knew BYU needed to generate more half-court threes to make his system sustainable. Eventually Big 12 teams will catch on to their effort to play in transition. Teams like Houston won’t let you run. Plus, there were going to be nights when BYU missed shots. So to counteract the variance game-to-game and half-to-half, they need to get more looks.

Brown’s answer was going after offensive rebounds. The problem was BYU’s roster wasn’t overly athletic. Its starting center was Khalifa after all.

He brought the issue to BYU assistant, and de-facto defensive coordinator, Kahil Fennell. They scoured tape to find rebounding strategies until they stumbled on an Australian team that adopted something called “wedging.”

Essentially, the team would throw four offensive rebounders on every shot attempt. Instead of just going after the ball, players would find a defender and hit into them to collapse them under the basket. The long rebounds that missed threes often produce would go out to BYU players.

The risk, of course, is getting caught giving up easy fast break points on the other end. But statistically, it was worth the risk.

“Offensive rebounding is super undervalued,” Brown said. “If you look at the macro, I can dig deep into the math and you have to give up an exorbitant amount of transition opportunities for it not to be worth going to offensive glass.”

And with that, Brown was set. Even in the Big 12, he thought, his plan was going to work

The payoff

As the ear-splitting noise turned to eery quiet silence inside Allen Fieldhouse last month, Brown and BYU’s coaching staff celebrated like they won the Super Bowl.

BYU did the unthinkable, knocking off Kansas 76-68 in Lawrence. It was a quintessential BYU performance, firing away for 34 threes and hitting 13 of them. Robinson had 18 points. Hall had 18. Khalifa set the table, knifing away the defense as he opened up looks.

Self after the game nearly took a quote out of Brown’s analytics playbooks, “If they hit 12 or 13 threes, then it will be hard because we only average five.”

The numbers game was executed perfectly.

(Charlie Riedel | AP) BYU center Aly Khalifa (50) shoots during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Lawrence, Kan. BYU won 76-68.

Brown’s strategy did more than just beat Kansas. It produced an offensive model that has become among the fastest (second in the Big 12) and most lethal (fifth in the Big 12) in the NCAA Tournament field.

Robinson has turned into a fringe first-round NBA talent, averaging nearly 14 points per game. His shooting percentage is up from 38% to 43%. Waterman’s averages went up six points. Hall has found his footing in the Big 12.

Khalifa started 23 games and BYU rode its new weapon to 22 regular-season wins and danced to fifth in the Big 12. The Cougars had the 12th-most efficient offense in the country while launching more long balls than anyone else.

“This is a really epic, historic year right now,” Pope said.

Now comes the next step: take their basketball brainchild to the tournament.