Dick Harmon: BYU seeks defense in the post-Emery era

Published: Friday, Jan. 13 2012 2:40 p.m. MST

PROVO — There are plenty of things one takes for granted in life: peanut butter, cell phones and, well, fresh snow.

For BYU basketball the past few years, it was defensive juggernaut Jackson Emery, The Human Sponge.

The Cougars are 14-4 heading into today's game with Santa Clara in the Marriott Center. That's a respectable record, a good start. They're still in the hunt for the WCC title. But in the course of 18 games, they've allowed a couple of hot shooters to spit in their faces, chuckle in the tunnel, do some back-slapping in the locker room.

Wisconsin's Ben Brust hit seven bombs against the Cougars; Baylor's Brady Heslip had six and St. Mary's shooters combined for 12 in three of BYU's four losses.

Last season, no 3-point shooter BYU faced ever hit more than five and only one, New Mexico's Phillip McDonald, ever did it and produced a win.

What a luxury it was to have Emery. He may not have stopped them all, but he'd likely have stripped their wallets a few times and made them think about something other than the slow motion act of toe-to-line, bring-back-ball, and aim-and-let go, all in a rhythm you could put to a metronome.

The post-Emery life for BYU's basketball team?

"I think we've always known he was that valuable," said Cougar assistant coach Tim LaComb. "What we realize is how much he covered up for mistakes. The defense we play requires everybody to be locked in and take care of their assignments. A lot of times with Jackson, if somebody made a mistake, Jax could fix it."

And one of those Jax Facts was steals. Past the halfway point in BYU's season, the team has 146 steals and the two players best at it are Charles Abouo (23) and Brandon Davies (21). A year ago, Emery finished with 101 and had 91 the year before.

D-e-f-e-n-s-e.

LaComb explains the challenge is two-fold this year. The Cougars are playing a lot of players and many of them are newcomers to Div. I play, even those who were with the team as redshirts last year, Matt Carlino and Anson Winder.

"Not only are they just beginning to play at this level, but they are new to our system. We have had to focus on not taking anything for granted and when we have extra time in practice, we've used that on things that in the last couple of years we didn't have to worry about.

"This group needs extra repetition," LaComb explained. "And we need to work on things we've noticed."

Lacomb said BYU is in a good stretch since the loss at St. Mary's. In that WCC opener on the road, the Cougars were embarrassed by Gael point production (98 points), and it hit both players and coaches equally hard. It caused a re-evaluation of intensity, effort and game preparation.

It may have helped to know St. Mary's took down No. 23 Gonzaga at the same site Thursday night 83-62.

Still, BYU has put more focus on defense since the St. Mary's loss. They've set objectives for every game and carefully reviewed those in film sessions. The Cougars are on a 3-0 run and have limited San Diego to 52 points, Loyola-Marymount to 65 and San Francisco to 52.

Of course, those teams don't have Matt Dellavedolva, Rob Jones and Stephen Holt, who went for 18, 24 and 21 on the Cougars at the Gael nesting place.

BYU's best physical defender is senior Abouo. The second is the most improved defender, senior Brock Zylstra, according to LaComb. In guarding shooters and drivers or a combination of both, Zylstra "has improved" as a defender.

A key, however, is chemistry, attitude and the personality of the team in a challenge to be better defenders.

"We've got that in this group of guys. It's never an issue of effort. It might be execution, but not how hard they play. The main reason we are winning games is that coach (Dave) Rose makes it fun. Every game is a challenge and you are around guys every day who are a pleasure to work with."

In that arena — attitude — LaComb believes there are plenty of Jackson Emerys.

email: dharmon@desnews.com twitter: Harmonwrites

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