Gordon Monson: Will the newfound insanity at BYU lead to the highest level of winning?

The hype for Kevin Young and the Cougars continues to grow.

Crazy stuff is happening at BYU, stuff that has never happened there before. And no, we’re not talking about a new interpretation of the Honor Code and the discipline that goes with it or a fresh application of some other peculiar policy that sets the school apart. Nothing to do with metaphorical musket fire or the like.

We’re talking basketball here. The ingredients for a level of hoop, a potential level, that BYU has never touched, not in the last 50 years, a span during which the Cougars have been the model of good, almost always good, and rarely great.

Why haven’t they been great? Because they haven’t been able to lure in enough top players, plain and simple. There have been a few sprinkled in through the years. Not enough of them. Danny Ainge was pretty darn good back around 1980. Jimmer Fredette surprised the college basketball world with his deep shooting a decade or so ago. Most of the others have been fine athletes dressed out as Boy Scouts, nice kids who might do good deeds, like help Grandma get safely to her parked car down the street, but they’ve never been quite talented enough to, say, win the West Coast Conference or, other than Ainge’s team’s run to the Elite Eight in ‘81, threaten to blow the lid off of college basketball.

Maybe BYU never will.

But what’s occurring in the basketball offices on the Provo campus now is enough to make you wonder. And nobody, as mentioned, has shifted their imaginations upward to wonder much about Cougar basketball in the past.

More than a few are shifting at present.

It started with Kevin Young’s hiring a couple of months back, when the highly-regarded Phoenix Suns assistant was rather surprisingly drawn in to replace outgoing coach Mark Pope. Most thought it was much more likely that Young would end up mentoring an NBA team rather than BYU’s.

The only way the Cougars could have pulled in a coach of that caliber was if he had been given ironclad guarantees that he would have afforded to him the support — read: assets — necessary not just to do the BYU thing of years gone by, not just to fiddle-faddle around with decent degrees of competitive achievement, rather to knock some premier heads around on the courts of Big 12 schools, a collection of teams that many agree is the best basketball league among college conferences.

BYU introduces men's basketball coach Kevin Young during a news conference Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Provo, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

You’ve read and heard about bits and pieces of what’s transpired since Young’s arrival. Put them all together, though, and a force is rising at BYU that will be a problem for all kinds of opponents moving forward. A serious problem.

The talent is rolling in.

The headliner is Egor Demin, one of the highest-rated recruits BYU has ever signed. The projected lottery pick in the 2025 NBA draft from Spanish club Real Madrid, officially signed with BYU on Monday.

Young’s response?

“We are thrilled that Egor and his family are joining us at BYU.”

Ya think?

“He is a special talent with an extremely bright future.”

That’s what everyone is saying, and for good reason. Russian dude, at 6-9, can pass, shoot, and make plays. There are two reasons he’s coming to BYU. One is he believes Young can prepare him for the NBA. Young himself put it this way: “Egor has proven himself among the best prospects in Europe in recent years. We look forward to helping him grow on and off the court.”

Mostly on it.

Second, Demin is getting paid. Nobody on the outside knows the exact figure, but estimates have placed the number at over $1 million. He’s a one-and-done prospect who will depend on Young teaching him what he needs to know. In turn, Young hopes Demin will help him win — right away.

But that’s only a portion of the promising package.

Kanon Catchings, a top 40 recruit in the 2024 class who initially committed to Purdue, announced his commitment to BYU on Tuesday. If the name Catchings sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Kanon is the nephew of Tamika Catchings, the WNBA star who won championships, an MVP award, pockets full of Olympic gold medals, and all kinds of professional respect. Kanon is a 6-8 forward who is thought to be an embryonic star.

But wait, there’s more.

Brody Kozlowski, the skilled 6-8 forward who signed with USC out of Corner Canyon High School, in part because he and Mark Pope were not going to make a happy mix, dialed in at BYU after Young came aboard and the Trojans had a head coaching change.

Elijah Crawford, a pure point guard who was a Stanford recruit, shifted away from the Cardinal and straight to the Cougars. He came over with former Stanford assistant Brandon Dunson and this was a big get for BYU. He’s a 3- or 4-star prospect, depending on which evaluator you subscribe to. Either way, the Cougars are fortunate to have him.

And more.

Mawot Mag, a big-bodied Australian transfer, one of the better defenders in the Big Ten last season at Rutgers, will give BYU something that every college team needs. “He’s probably the best college defender I’ve seen in a long, long time,” Maryland basketball coach Kevin Willard said last year.

Syracuse forward Alan Griffin (0) drives to the basket against Rutgers forward Mawot Mag (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Piscataway, N.J., Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

There have been other additions, too, such as former Utah big man Keba Keita. And it came and went with substantial notice that the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in two years, AJ Dybantsa, a kid who will play at Utah Prep in Hurricane, recently stopped by for an unofficial visit at BYU. Another BYU target is Dybantsa’s teammate, JJ Mandaquit, a 4-star guard who holds offers from a bunch of schools.

With Catchings on the roster, the Cougars have now captured four top 100 recruits in this coming class.

Let’s reiterate it all simple and clear. BYU does not do that. It hasn’t done that — until now.

It gets Boy Scouts who look like they stumbled into the gym on their way to a troop meeting.

That’s not this.

This is authentic ballers who have a laser-focus on ascending to the game’s highest reaches, and they figure Kevin Young is a coach — and BYU is a place — that can boost them in getting there. With NIL cash available for their efforts. Young’s got to be telling them he and BYU will do that, and give them every chance to get them where they want to go, if they’re conscientious enough to listen and learn.

Moreover, BYU found a way to hang onto two significant players already in the fold, players many around the Cougar program thought would be lost to other suitors, after this past season — Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders. Both, it turns out, will be back.

One prize BYU did lose is Collin Chandler, a top recruit out of Farmington High School who was headed to BYU before his church mission and now is going to Kentucky with Pope.

The unanswered question that hovers still is this: Can Young actually coach? It’s fairly obvious he can coach, and that’s why many of the Suns players love the guy. The more accurate question is: Can he lead a college program — this particular program — to the mountaintop? Most forthright coaches admit that recruiting is the key to success in the college game, and Young appears able to persuade players that he’s the man. So, they’re starting to come. That’s No. 1. But, meantime, a coach must also retain players, shaping them into a mature, cohesive group that is willing to work and sacrifice for one another in the way winning requires.

It’s crazy stuff, indeed, and unexpected stuff, but BYU is now leaning hard on the first objective. The second one, we’ll believe when it manifests itself, in its newfound form, plainly for everyone to see.

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