Three weeks ago, BYU was coming off its lone Mountain West Conference loss at New Mexico, a game by the end of which the Cougars looked a step slow and a little tired. It was after that setback that I wrote in this space about the heavy workload being carried by BYU's starters, and the relatively minimal contributions from the Cougars' bench brigade.
Since that loss in Albuquerque, BYU has found more balance between starters and reserves, and has yet to lose again. After the New Mexico setback and through seven games of conference play, BYU's starters were accounting for 92 percent of the team's points and 81 percent of minutes played. In the ensuing five games, the starters have scored 81 percent of the points and played 76 percent of the minutes — minimal but notable decreases.
Through seven league games, workhorse Jimmer Fredette had scored 41 percent of BYU's points; since the UNM loss, he has accounted for 32.5 percent of the offensive output, while his minutes-per-game number is down from 37.4 through seven league games to 35.6 in the ensuing five conference contests.
For BYU to have a prolonged postseason run, less may indeed be more when it comes to reliance on Fredette and the starting five.
Any team with designs on a march through March would like to be at least seven if not eight productive players deep in its regular rotation. Through much of the season, BYU's would-be sixth and seventh players had struggled to get into a groove. Lately, however, Charles Abouo and Stephen Rogers have emerged to give BYU the boost it had been lacking.
A concussion suffered by Kyle Collinsworth has recently nudged Abouo into the starting lineup, but even before his new assignment, he had begun to shoot and play better. Over the last six games, Abouo is 21-for-37 (57 percent) from the field, after going 11 for his previous 41 (27 percent).
"My role is just to be ready when called upon," Abouo says. "Whatever I'm asked to do, I'll do it."
With Abouo's role now that of a starter, Collinsworth becomes an energetic contributor to bring into the game at any of three guard positions, and since recovering from his concussion, the true freshman appears ready to settle into the utility role for which he is well suited.
Rogers' strong play of late is perhaps the most promising development during BYU's five-game win streak. After the loss at New Mexico, Rogers was averaging 3.7 points per game, and had played six minutes or fewer in five of seven conference games. In the last five games, Rogers has averaged 14.2 minutes per game, and has scored in double figures in three of the last four, averaging just under 10 points per game in the process.
"Every good team has a deep bench. You have to have at least two or three guys who can come off the bench and contribute," says Rogers. "Charles and I talked about it a number of different times when Charles was coming off the bench with me, and that's something that we have to concentrate on."
Not to be forgotten is the play of senior team captain Logan Magnusson, an eighth rotation player whose value has increased with James Anderson recovering from a recent shoulder injury. Magnusson has averaged more than 15 minutes per game in the last five games, and has scored in three consecutive contests, always playing bigger than his listed height and consistently making what coach Dave Rose likes to call "winning plays."
Rose has previously downplayed potential fatigue issues with this year's team, but there is little doubt that he recognizes the value of reserves who can lessen the load on his starting group.
"One of the real challenges is to improve from your first half of the season to your second half of the season," says Rose, "and one of the points of improvement is getting a lot more play from our bench, so we can shrink the minutes for some of our starters."
Meantime, the games only get bigger. Wednesday's home clash against Colorado State is followed by Saturday's showdown at San Diego State. At stake are conference title hopes and an outside shot at an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed. It is quite simply the most important regular season week in BYU basketball history. The way they are playing now, the Cougars — starters and substitutes — look ready for it.
Greg Wrubell is the radio play-by-play "Voice of the Cougars," and hosts BYU Football and Basketball Coaches' Shows on KSL Newsradio and KSL 5 Television. Wrubell's blog "Cougar Tracks" can be found at byu.ksl.com. "Behind the Mic" is published every Tuesday during the BYU football and basketball seasons. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org