PROVO With both of its losses coming to teams ranked in the top 10, plus a win over a former top-10 foe, No. 25 BYU is off to one of its best starts in school history.
Days after upsetting then-No. 6 Louisville and playing top-ranked North Carolina to the wire before losing, the Cougars (7-2) experienced their earliest appearance in the national polls since the 1980-81 season. The win over the Cardinals marked the highest-ranked team BYU had defeated since knocking off No. 2 St. Joseph's on Dec. 21, 1965.
Last Saturday at EnergySolutions Arena, the Cougars fell to No. 9 Michigan State, 68-61, after squandering a 14-point first-half advantage.
Along the way, the Cougars have impressed some of the most prominent figures in college basketball.
"BYU is a big-time basketball team," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "BYU is very sound fundamentally. They were able to box out on the boards just as well as anyone we have seen so far."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo also liked what he saw out of the Cougars. "I'm very impressed with BYU. They're better than they were last year. This is a road win against a quality team I expect to be in the NCAA tournament. I think (BYU) is a team that can go a long way."
The Cougars say they have benefited from the challenging early-season schedule. "We've gained confidence," said center Trent Plaisted. "We've realized we can play with any team in the country and we think we can beat just about any team in the country."
BYU, the defending MWC champions and preseason MWC favorites, still has a preseason matchup at Wake Forest of the Atlantic Coast Conference in early January, just before league play begins.
"These games are scheduled to help prepare us for our conference schedule, " said coach Dave Rose.
Here are five reasons why BYU is off to strong start this season:
1. Competitive nature/work ethic: Rose says his players are competitive in just about everything they do. "Our biggest strength, as a whole, is that we have a competitive group of guys. They compete hard against each other. It's a high- spirited group. These guys want to win."
The Cougars showed that in the off-season, Rose added, by the way they worked on aspects of their game and the time they spent in the weight room.
"I tried to get better in everything," Plaisted said. "The two most specific things were free throws and my doing things with my right hand. I've got the confidence to do better at those things. As a team, we all worked hard during the summer."
2. Team-first approach: Instilling selflessness in the BYU basketball program is Rose's No. 1 priority and his players are incorporating that quality.
"We continually emphasize the importance of team defense, team
offense and team chemistry," Rose said. "You have to have great leadership in order to have the team as your main priority. We do things every day to try to build our team concept. Winning, obviously, helps reinforce the things that are the most important. That's our biggest priority. The team is the most important thing and
these players have all bought into our team concept. We've gotten some good leadership."
Offensively, the Cougars thrive on ball movement and giving up a good shot for a better one. Even ESPN college basketball analyst Dick
Vitale picked up on this trait when he called the BYU-North Carolina contest. "I love the way they move the basketball," he said. "They share it and it's a team concept."
Guard Lee Cummard said he and his teammates are motivated by team goals, not individual ones. "When we play as a team," he said, "we're
so much better."
3. Plaisted's play: As good as Plaisted was in his first two seasons in Provo, the
junior center has improved markedly this season. He leads the MWC in rebounding (9.2 per game), is second in scoring (17.8 points per game) and is tied for second with Cummard in field goal percentage (58.4 percent). Against nationally ranked teams, Plaisted has averaged 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds.
"At this point, the thing we're most pleased with is, he's become much more aggressive on the offensive and defensive boards," Rose said of Plaisted. "If he can rebound like he has, that will really help our team. It has also increased our expectations. It's like anything you do you want to be consistent and get better. That's what we're looking for out of Trent. We're really pleased with his progress. He's got a great upside."
4. Murdock is the man: Senior guard Ben Murdock, who played sparingly last season behind Austin Ainge and Rashaun Broadus, earned the starting job and has acquitted himself well.
Murdock leads the MWC in assists (45) and is second in assist-to- turnover ratio (12 turnovers). He dished out a season-high 10 assists
in BYU's win over Portland on Dec. 1.
"We're becoming pretty accustomed to Ben having big nights as far as his assists-to-turnover ratio," Rose said. "It's really good to have a guy out there on the team that can get us into our offense and is very unselfish, wants to share the ball and can make big plays when it's his turn."
5. European vacation: In August, the Cougars took an 11-day trip to France and Monaco, where they posted a 5-0 record against foreign foes. "The biggest benefit was just spending time together as a team, " Plaisted said.
A month of extra practices gave BYU a bit of a headstart on the
season. "We spent the month of August practicing every day," Rose said. "What I was pleased with the most was how well we competed. The
competitive spirit was terrific."That competitive spirit has spilled over into the season. Now, the Cougars are looking to build off the momentum they've generated so far and finish the season as well as, if not better than, the way they started.