MILWAUKEE — At the University of Utah, the football program is struggling. Three years in the Pac-12 has shown the Utes that it’s crowded at the top half of the conference. Coach Kyle Whittingham is in constant search for speed, size and strength.
Utah’s basketball team, on the other hand, should be good next year. That’s largely due to the addition of Delon Wright, a butter-smooth junior college transfer. The Utes' biggest worry is that he’ll turn pro this year. His arrival changed their direction. If they can win a couple more road games, they’ll make the NCAA tournament next season.
Then there’s BYU, which made the NCAAs this year, only to lose by 19 to Oregon. But its future too is looking good — for the same reason as Utah's.
It only takes one or two great players in basketball and you’re in business.
Becoming a football power is a multi-year project. Basketball is all about finding one or two guys who can hoop.
Consider early results in this year’s NCAA tournament. No. 14 seed Mercer stunned No. 3 Duke, 12th-seeded Harvard beat No. 5 Cincinnati, and No. 11 Dayton beat No. 6 Ohio State. Also, No. 12 North Dakota State upended No. 5 Oklahoma. Meanwhile, Manhattan — the team, not the clam chowder — nearly knocked off Louisville.
These aren’t teams brimming with NBA talent. But they get a couple of wonderful college players and then go at the big teams. Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina get the best athletes, who then wave good-bye after their freshman or sophomore seasons. Older teams, such as BYU, offset that by keeping their players longer.
They learn how to play with a maturity that is hard to duplicate with a one-and-done team.
Football is like building a luxury hotel — it takes millions of dollars and years to complete. Basketball can change overnight. In hoops you don’t have to recruit two-dozen positions, just four or five. If you get the right player, people will soon notice.
What this means for the Cougars is that they really aren’t far from being a deep playoff team. Could they get to the Final Four? Not with this year’s group. But they might have, with a healthy Kyle Collinsworth and a willing Jabari Parker.
The other pieces are already in place.
Although it plays in the West Coast Conference, BYU is closer to having a top-flight basketball program than many may think. Not a single player graduates from this year’s lineup, though big man Eric Mika is leaving for an LDS Church mission. At the same time, the Cougars should have back Collinsworth, who missed this year’s tournament with a knee injury. Likewise, they’ll return starters Tyler Haws, Nate Austin, Anson Winder and Matt Carlino.
The Cougars were finalists on Parker’s list of potential teams. Though he ended up at Duke, it illustrated how close BYU is to being a dangerous tournament team. Had starting center Brandon Davies been eligible in 2011, he and Jimmer Fredette could have taken the Cougars even farther than the Sweet 16.
If BYU can convince Jake Heaps — the top quarterback in the country in high school — to come to BYU, it can get the next Parker. With T.J. Haws, Nick Emery and Mika on LDS missions for the next couple of years, there is hope that when they reunite, they can duplicate their high school national championship.
Not likely, unless they get a superstar.
Then you’d need a flamethrower to keep them out of the Elite Eight or Final Four.
BYU has been to more NCAA tournaments (28) without making the Final Four than any other team. It is often overmatched against more athletic programs (Kansas State, Marquette, Florida and Texas A&M). At the same time, BYU has made itself a tournament fixture, joining the NCAA field in seven of the last eight years and 10 of the last 14.
The school’s influence with non-LDS players is growing, too. Chase Fisher, a transfer from Wake Forest, and Jamal Aytes, from UNLV, will be on the roster next season.
The Cougars have figured out how to consistently reach the tournament. They are almost always a consideration for top LDS players. More Jabaris will arise. If one or two of them goes to BYU, the Final Four Worry Watch will finally be a thing of the past.
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