Crystal ball commentary: National championship destiny for BYU men's basketball?

By Nate Gagon

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Dec. 9 2013 10:10 p.m. MST

BYU's Kyle Collinsworth puts up a three point attempt for the tie as BYU Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 in the Marriott Center. Iowa State defeated BYU 90-88.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Editor's note: This is the third installment in a three-part series commentary on BYU basketball. Part 1 took a look at what could have happened with the Cougar basketball team in the 2010-11 season. In Part 2, former BYU star Jackson Emery shared exclusive insight into the 2011 BYU basketball team. This column takes a detailed look into the future of BYU basketball.

It always has been, and probably always will be, impossible to perfectly predict the future of college basketball — or sports in general. There are too many unpredictable variables — injuries, early NBA draft departures, transfers, coaching changes, regression in player attitude or ability and so on.

The future for BYU basketball is even more difficult to predict because of the high percentage of players that go on two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some players go on missions before enrolling, some after one year, some go unexpectedly and some decide not to go. Not only is it difficult to manage the timing of missions, it is also challenging to try to predict how the two-year layoff will affect individual players.

I asked Jackson Emery about the mission variable at BYU, and he put it this way: “That is a huge unknown. You never know how someone’s going to react physically and mentally. Taking two years off of sports can have a huge effect on your body and some guys never get it back.”

Emery did also say, however, having gone on a mission himself that he is “a firm believer in how much a mission does for a person, for the missionary’s family and for the people they teach.”

Succeeding at the missionary-program-balancing act will indeed be an indispensable component if BYU is to finally achieve a Final 4 season. Currently, BYU owns the distinction of being the program with the most NCAA Tournament appearances (27) without ever having made the Final 4.

The general sentiment among Cougar supporters, however, and one that was backed by Emery in our interview is that “the future is extremely bright” for BYU, and that “there could be special things happening in the near future.”

Take a look at the six-year future of BYU basketball and what could lie in store.

Cougar head coach Dave Rose has led BYU on an unprecedented run of success since taking over the program in 2005. Going into the current season, he had the highest winning percentage (.760) in BYU basketball history, with his teams winning at least 20 games in each of his first eight seasons.

As discussed in Part 1 of this series, Rose nearly led the Cougars to unprecedented postseason success as well. BYU was a single point away from reaching the Elite 8 in 2011, where it would have had an enviable path to a national championship.

While that opportunity got away, the Cougar program appears poised to take another run at a national title in the near future.

Right now, in particular, the NCAA tournaments of 2017, 2018 and 2019 are setting up as must-see events for BYU fans.

In those three seasons, barring any of the variables talked about earlier, BYU sets up to have a nucleus of:

— Center Eric Mika: Rated by ESPN as the No. 3 center and No. 28 overall prospect in 2013 — currently starting for the Cougars as a true freshman and showing no signs of being a letdown.

— Point guard Nick Emery: Rated by ESPN as the No. 9 point guard and No. 45 overall prospect in 2013 — currently on an LDS mission with a target debut in the 2015-16 season.

— Shooting guard TJ Haws: Rated by ESPN as the No. 13 shooting guard and No. 67 overall prospect in 2014 — currently playing his senior season at Lone Peak High School.

— Power forward Payton Dastrup: Rated by ESPN as the No. 12 center and No. 98 overall prospect in 2014 — currently playing his senior season at Mountain View High School in Arizona.

As impressive as that nucleus is on paper, the Cougars appear set up to have a solid supporting cast around them during those seasons as well. Guys that could play key roles include:

— Shooting guard Frank Bartley (senior in 2016-17): currently a major contributor as an athletic, confident true freshman. He could be much more than a supporting player on that 2017 team.

— Forwards: Luke Worthington, Braiden Shaw, Jakob Hartsock, Dalton Nixon and Ryan Andrus (all 3-star recruits according to ESPN).

— Guards: Jake Toolson and Zac Seljaas (both 3-star recruits on scout.com) and Jordan Chatman (Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Washington in 2012).

By no means is that meant to be a comprehensive list of guys that could contribute over that time period. There are lesser-known prospects with potential that have committed and there will surely be more recruits yet to come.

For example, highly regarded high school sophomore Frank Jackson — who scored 30 points against Lone Peak as a ninth-grader and then transferred there after the season — has already committed to BYU as part of the 2016 class, although he plans to serve a mission after high school and therefore would not play until the 2018-19 season.

As you can see from these recruiting classes, there are legitimate reasons why Jackson Emery felt confident in saying “the future is extremely bright” for the Cougars and why that seems to be the general feeling around the program.

Take a look at the six-year future of BYU basketball and what could lie in store.

Nate Gagon is a published sports, music and creative writer. He is also a wholehearted father, grateful husband and ardent student of life. He shoots roughly 94% from the free-throw line and can be reached at: nategagon@hotmail.com or @nategagon.

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