This weekend, conference play begins for the LMU Lions against none other than the tough BYU Cougars. The Cougars are battle-tested, and will put up a great fight. Now, as I’m not a BYU expert, I reached out to one to answer a few questions I have about the Cougars. Steve Pierce, a BYU Basketball writer for the website LoyalCougars.com, was kind enough to respond to my questions. Once you’re done reading this, I suggest you go on Twitter and follow him as soon as possible (@PostJimmer), as he’s always tweeting great stuff about BYU Hoops and college basketball in general.
- The Cougars have been a team this season that has certainly struggled to attain wins, as they scheduled very tough and have losses to unbeaten teams like Wichita State, Iowa State, and Oregon. How will those losses affect BYU’s play in the coming months? Will they be alarmed, panicked, or calm?
Pierce: I think the jury’s still out on that. If you’re a BYU fan, you’d certainly hope those early-season experiences being in close gamesagainst elite teams will pay dividends for the Cougars once they face lesser conference foes. (No offense to some really good WCC squads, but no one in this conference is on the level of those three teams you mentioned.) Then again, the opposite could always happen and BYU’s confidence could be sapped by repeatedly suffering heartbreaking losses. It’s kind of a crapshoot at this point — but every Cougar fan should be praying for the former.
- BYU has lost 3 of their previous 4 games, and have certainly been frustrated. How will that frustration play out in Saturday’s game?
Pierce: If anything, BYU has shown an ability to bounce back and play with passion and focus after being disappointed. Many observers didn’t give them a chance to hang with Oregon, especially after getting blitzed by Utah in the previous game. But they came out strong and played with great effort — and lest we forget, were one made free throw away from winning that game on the road. So I think this team will be able to bounce back again — and now that they’re facing a non-Oregon opponent, hopefully seal a road win.
- Even though the Cougars currently sit at 8-5, they are statistically one of the best teams in the country, averaging almost 90 points per game and 44 rebounds per game. What is they key to stopping the scoring barrage from Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino, as well as the monsters on the glass that are Nate Austin and Kyle Collinsworth?
Pierce: Tyler Haws is a basketball assassin, but the teams that have been most effective at slowing him down have played really physically with him, particularly off the ball. Now, it remains to be seen how the WCC refs will enforce the new emphasis on physicality in conference play — but if they enforce it strictly and prevent guys from clutching and grabbing on the perimeter, it could be very difficult to slow Haws. Carlino is an extremely talented player who is also extremely streaky. He’s been in a cold spell of late, but is always one or two made buckets away from catching fire and burning any arena to the ground. Your best bet from preventing that from happening is baiting him into contested long threes — which he will gladly shoot, but not at a high percentage. As far as the big men down low, both have fouled at a prodigious rate, so the more opponents can force the ball into the post and draw fouls, the more they’ll be neutralized on the bench.
- LMU is centered around its guard play, headed by senior leader Anthony Ireland. He scores about 19 points per game and is able to dish the ball out to teammates very well, adding an uncanny element to the Lions. What will BYU be doing to try and stop Ireland from being a key factor?
Pierce: BYU has traditionally struggled with quick guards like Ireland, and he’s undoubtedly a very talented player. It’s unlikely that the Cougars have anyone who can guard him man-to-man, so expect to see a lot of 2-3 zone. The zone has been effective for BYU over the past few years, but if someone gets hot, it could be a problem for the boys from Provo.
- BYU hasn’t been in Provo for almost 3 weeks, and Saturday’s game is at Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles. How will the road trip factor into BYU’s play? Will they be tired and not well-rested?
Pierce: LMU is always tough on the road, so this trip scares me a bit. You would expect that the team should be pretty well rested after having a few days off for Christmas break — but that could raise an additional problem of fitness. Will they still be able to run continuously (as they are wont to do) after breaking their routine, even if for only a short time? I’d expect they’ll be OK, but only time will tell.
- I saw the following tweet today and it peaked my interest:
Pomeroy still has BYU favored in 16 of their 18 WCC games. If BYU went 16-2 they’d be an easy at-large choice I think.
— Geoff Johnston (@geoffjBYU) December 26, 2013
Your thoughts on the prediction? If your thoughts differ, how well do you think BYU will do?
Pierce: I think BYU going 16-2 is certainly possible. They have a ton of talent, and Gonzaga and St. Mary’s are not as good as they’ve been in past years. Now, does that mean it’s likely? Probably not. League play is tough, and while everyone tends to focus on the couple games against other top teams, you’ve especially got to watch out for the tough games against “lesser” teams who can still pop up and bite you, particularly on the road. Saturday’s game at LMU is a perfect example. However, if they do manage to go 16-2 or 15-3, I’d imagine that’s probably good enough to finish first or second in the conference and likely punch an at-large ticket to the Big Dance. But they have to do the work first — no nights off.
- Finally, what is your very early prediction for how WCC play will play out, and what teams will be dancing come March?
Pierce: If you haven’t read Jeff Eisenberg’s latest post over at Yahoo! about the WCC’s precarious position heading into conference play, you certainly should. While I think the league is better top-to-bottom than last year, the top teams struggled in nonconference, making the path to a multiple bids very difficult. It’s not impossible, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see only one WCC team dancing in March. I think any of those top three teams could feasibly win the league, and it’s going to be a matter of who steps up and asserts themselves night in and night out over the coming months. This is when it gets fun.
- Final Score Prediction?
Pierce: 89-69 BYU