Dick Harmon: BYU's Matt Carlino could be X-factor in West Coast Conference

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 27 2011 1:20 a.m. MST

BYU's #10 Matt Carlino turns and heads up court after a Buffalo turnover as BYU and Buffalo play Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 in Provo at the Marriott Center.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO —

So, how will the Cougars stack up in the West Coast Conference now that there's a track record of games and some statistical analysis and preseason polls to debate?

It should be a competitive run at the top, just like we saw in the Mountain West Conference with top-tier favorites bloodying noses.

Gonzaga is picked to finish first, followed by St. Mary's and then newcomer BYU at third. Gonzaga has the clout, the reputation and the pedigree. It is a respected ESPN pet team that's proven over and over again that it can make a splash where and when it counts.

On the basis of that tradition, Gonzaga has earned the title of the team to beat. The Cougars are coming into the 'Zags' domain. Out of the chute, the establishment should be favored.

Dave Rose and his BYU squad must earn respect in this circle. BYU appears to be doing just that.

So far, after a run of pre-conference games, the preseason poll by WCC media appears to be following the traditional script.

BYU can make an early statement on Thursday if it can beat St. Mary's on the road.

The WCC is top-heavy with some beat-down fodder at the bottom. Much has been made of playing in smaller arenas by the newcomer BYU. Will that be a factor for or against — or is it just down-clicks on some fashion meter?

This is a league that, if the bottom were tougher, may warrant a look by the NCAA as a three-bid conference in March. If not, there will be a great premium placed on the league's conference tournament in Las Vegas in the Orleans Arena two months from now for that guaranteed automatic ticket.

A check with the computer nerd corps confirms preseason speculation.

If you check Jeff Sagarin's latest USA Today computer rankings, St. Mary's is ranked 18th with an 11-2 record. The Gaels achieve that ranking with a strength of schedule at 185.

Sagrain has 10-3 BYU 28th with a similar strength of schedule at 184, and 9-2 Gonzaga is 41st with the league's toughest strength of schedule at 127.

Ken Pomeroy rates BYU No. 20 nationally, followed by St. Mary's at No. 27 and Gonzaga 29th.

Pomeroy has 11-2 Wisconsin, which defeated BYU on a neutral court in Chicago, as No. 1, followed by 12-1 Ohio State. Interesting to note, UNLV is 18th while the highest Pac-12 team, Cal, is 17th according to Pomeroy.

ESPN's Jay Bilas released his top-60 rankings, which are not a computer matrix but his own guess after his research, and he has Gonzaga ranked 27th, BYU 35th and St. Mary's 37th.

Sizing up the Cougars so far is an interesting exercise.

Why?

Because Rose has experimented with one of the most important cogs in his machinery for what will be 14 games before the league opener.

In a word, he's "fiddled" with that spot for two months. He's been forced to.

Rose has invested a lot of time in the Jimmer Fredette point guard replacement matrix. He started 6-foot-6 shooting guard and small forward Brock Zylstra at that position to begin things. He then turned the reins over to freshman Anson Winder and junior Craig Cusick.

The Winder/Cusick move worked and just as they settled in, the long-awaited Dec. 17 date arrived when UCLA transfer freshman Matt Carlino became eligible to play. Rose then turned the starting role over to Carlino against a top-10 Baylor team.

These three stages are risky business by Rose, but a game plan he counted on. Neither Gonzaga nor St. Mary's has "fiddled" this way, yet the Cougars' 18.6 assists per game ranks fifth nationally. That speaks to a lot of teamwork, albeit with disrupted chemistry.

I'd say BYU's point guard experiment cost the Cougars at least two of their three losses: The USU loss for sure. Wisconsin simply shot BYU out of the gym. In the Baylor loss, if Carlino had started all season, he likely would have made more plays. If Carlino had made fewer mistakes against the No. 7 Bears in the Marriott Center, maybe they wouldn't have lost by three.

Carlino's impact has been immediate — the very reason Rose is giving him the most minutes, second only to Noah Hartsock. He needs oven time. He is BYU's second-leading scorer, averages six assists a game, shoots .456 from the field and .500 from beyond the arc.

Could it be said Carlino — his successful development or struggles — could be the biggest factor in the outcome of the WCC race? If Carlino fast tracks it, can he pull even with, cancel out or surpass point guards at St. Mary's or Gonzaga?

Boy, that would be a stretch.

Or is it?

Rose seems to think it may not be so farfetched. As Fredette proved, a single point guard can have a tremendous impact on the nine other players on a court.

Carlino has definitely become BYU's own X-factor — even without playing in November and most of December.

Email: dharmon@desnews.com

twitter: harmonwrites

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