PROVO — Has BYU coach Dave Rose successfully retooled the Cougars' basketball team after ending a four-game losing streak with an 87-53 win over San Diego at home?
It is too early to tell.
It’s one thing to break a trend. It is another to change the identity, focus and habits of a program and its players.
However, we won't have to wait long to find out whether BYU has improved because the Cougars have rematches this week against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine — the two teams that shot the Cougars out of their gyms last week in California.
Saturday's win over the Toreros was a restart. Rose tinkered, tiptoeing around sensitive balances of chemistry and confidence without disrupting positives that nearly got wins over some good teams.
To begin with, the Cougars got some valuable practice time at their own place. After playing games on the road between Dec. 11 and Jan. 4, one has to admit at least a part of the challenge was finding energy and consistent practice time, elements found in the nest. Even NBA teams don’t go that long without a home game.
Rose brought three-year starting point guard Matt Carlino off the bench. He started Skyler Halford at shooting guard, matching him up with Kyle Collinsworth at the point. It looked like Rose mandated that his players pass the ball five to six times before they took a shot — a challenge for a squad that averaged 12 seconds a possession. His team had 25 assists on 31 field goals and Halford had a career-high 28 points.
But it was on the other end where Rose really made a move: He played more man defense than any time this season.
Two things were glaring commonalities in blowout losses to Utah, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine. Opponents raced to big leads and 3-point shooters feasted on BYU’s zone. The two WCC foes were 21 of 41 from distance. San Diego shot just 11 percent.
Rose knows he can’t play man defense against everyone, not for extended stretches. But in this game, against an average WCC team, it worked.
“We were a defensive team playing with urgency on every defensive possession,” said Rose. The ploy actually fed his offense. “We need to bottle that and make that become a huge part of the identity of this group.”
It caught the Toreros by surprise. So did the use of Halford, whom Rose admitted wasn’t a key element of the Toreros' pregame planning.
At halftime of that Saturday BYU-SD game, UVU student Austin Stewart pitched in a circus shot from half court to win an iPad from the BYU marketing folks. Stewart just happens to be a former teammate of Halford at Timpanogos High in Orem.
Halford’s game features tenacity and intensity and a pure shooting stroke. It got him starting time in practice leading up to the Toreros' game in place of Carlino.
How was Halford at Timpanogos? I asked Stewart, who is a year older than Halford and my neighbor.
"Sky is a scorer, obviously, even if he isn’t the biggest man on the court,” said Stewart. “He definitely was the hardest worker on our team in practice. He came early and stayed late, a first-guy-in-and-last-guy-out kind of kid. I remember before every practice he’d do dribbling drills off in the corner by himself with two balls at a time. You never appreciate that until it pays off. He always wanted to play Division I ball, but with his body, you doubted he could. That’s why it was so fun to see him in his first start score 28.”
Stewart said he wasn’t surprised with Halford “because I know how hard he works.”
Halford’s shot is a known commodity, something that was there in high school, at SLCC and Saturday night.
“You could never leave Skyler open. Never. I mean, the kid has the purest shot. There’s been moments in his career where he has the capability of going off at any moment. You can’t leave him open from 5 feet back once he gets going. Scoring in general, he finds a way.”
Halford shadowed San Diego's Johnny Dee last Saturday and helped limit the WCC’s second-leading score to a pair of buckets. Stewart said in high school, Halford was the scorer and his energy was saved for that purpose, not playing defense. “Now his role has changed since SLCC and he’s had to become more scrappy and hustle on defense. That he’s done that shows how hard he works at it.”
So, in the retooling of the Cougars, Halford’s role has been expanded as part of the plan. By his own admission, Halford doesn’t know how "set in stone" starting will be the rest of the season. One thing Halford’s shot does is present problems for defenders doubling up on Tyler Haws and Eric Mika. As long as Carlino is struggling with his shot, Halford is a key part of the potion.
He’ll take it.
“It was fun,” is how he put it.
And it is a new look for Rose.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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