SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Dave Rose thinks his ballclub isn’t that far away. They’ve been right there. They have played well and won against some good teams. But as the non-conference slate winds down, his Brigham Young team could still use a signature win. They had such an opportunity in Saturday, but UMass handled them 105-96 and basically beat them at their own game.
Brigham Young plays at a fast pace, and they have done it well all season, including turning the ball over less than 11 times per game on average. They did it well on Saturday at the offensive end, shooting 48.5 percent from the field and handing out 15 assists with 11 turnovers. But UMass did it better, shooting 55.6 percent. UMass also did something unusual: they out-scored the Cougars in the paint, as BYU came into the game on average out-scoring opponents by ten points per game in the paint. The Cougars also lost for the first time all year when they out-rebounded an opponent.
“I like our guys,” said Rose. “I like the fight in our guys, we just had a really hard time handling them tonight.”
Brigham Young has not played a soft non-conference schedule, but the importance of it is greater in the West Coast Conference than it was when they were in the Mountain West, including during the conference’s best days. They have won at Stanford and against Texas in the CBE Classic, as well as over rival Utah State. While good wins, their value for the NCAA Tournament is debatable right now.
Along the way, the Cougars lost a tough one to Iowa State and had a chance against Wichita State in the CBE championship game. Rose said he felt like the latter got away from them in the final minutes, and it was not the kind of game they have been winning as it was a defensive struggle. With UMass, the Cougars started well, but fell behind quickly after an 8-3 lead, and were never able to sustain rallies long enough to catch UMass. They had a couple in the second half, but UMass answered each one and eventually grew the lead.
“We’re close,” said Rose. “I think we’ve got a good club. Tonight, we didn’t get a chance to get late and try to execute and finish the game. We were kind of playing from behind the whole time.”
The Cougars may be even better next year with no seniors on this team, but they have a chance this season, too. Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino can score with the best of them, and this offense is run very well to get them good opportunities. Haws will probably lead the West Coast Conference in scoring and could contend for the national title in that category. Kyle Collinsworth looks good returning from his mission, while Nate Austin is the complementary guy inside to talented freshman Eric Mika, who has a high ceiling. Mika can score and has good length and fundamentals, as he’s very good at using both hands to finish near the basket. There is good depth as well.
Brigham Young is running out of chances for a non-conference win that would boost their resume. While Texas is 8-1, but their best win is probably over Vanderbilt with games still to go against North Carolina and Michigan State before Big 12 play. The odds are the win over Texas won’t have much shelf life, but we’ll know more about that before Christmas. Stanford could prove to be a better win as well, and that was a true road game.
For remaining non-conference games, the Cougars have Prairie View A&M at home, which won’t help, before going on the road to play at Utah and Oregon, the latter of which is a better opportunity. West Coast Conference play begins after that, and they will have chances with Gonzaga along with possibly Saint Mary’s and Pacific, but that may not be enough without a significant non-conference win.
There is a lot to like about this team. They run good offense, have defended well for most of the year as opponents were shooting less than 41 percent from the field against them coming into Saturday, and have a lot of potential to grow. UMass head coach Derek Kellogg said that the Cougars are “probably one of the better offensive teams that we’ll play all year.” They have given their best opponents a tough battle. But at some point, a signature win is needed, and the Cougars are close but haven’t broken through yet.