The last time BYU tangled with Pacific and St. Mary’s, elbows and fists flew, and officials sent some visitors in the Marriott Center to the bench or locker room.
BYU coach Dave Rose's club ultimately won both games inside the friendly confines of its home arena, and the Cougars followed them up with another pair of home victories last weekend. During the four-game stretch, Rose watched junior guard Tyler Haws catch fire and freshman forward Eric Mika make use of a healthier body to rib up, muscle and collide. Things generally went BYU’s way.
It won't be as easy this weekend.
Thursday night, the Cougars take on Pacific in Stockton, Calif., then Saturday they travel to St. Mary’s. While the Cougars have won nine of their last 11, are they better and more improved than the last time they went on the road — losing in triple overtime at Portland and bowing to Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., the last week of January?
BYU's record says yes. Players say yes. And coaches are selling the idea that it is so.
Mika expects the physical play to continue, but says it is all on how the game is called. “It’s been different every game,” he said. And there lies one key to these road games for the Cougars.
“Play more physical and foul less,” is how Rose put it this week.
Taking an improved team on the road?
The keys to being successful are threefold, according to assistant coach Tim LaComb.
“One of the things we’ve tried to emphasize since that stretch on the road is defending the 3-point shot and it's been huge,” he said.
“Every game we lost, teams shot a crazy amount of 3s against us and made a high percentage. We’ve made it a high priority. Our league ranks high in making 3s and it’s important we defend better."
Second, players must recognize the value of extra possessions.
“It really helped us out of a tough night with San Francisco and against St. Mary’s, inarguably one of the most physical teams in the country. Our guys did a great job of getting us those extra possessions," said LaComb.
Third is chemistry.
Since losing those games in that long stretch away from Provo, LaComb said the players have really bought into the roles coaches have created for them.
"There aren’t better examples than Nate Austin, who realizes every night he’s going to have to be really physical and go chase down rebounds, and Matt Carlino, who is taking fewer shots but is more efficient in the minutes he’s getting and is becoming more of a pass-first guy," said LaComb. "Then there’s Tyler Haws, who has been on a run and people have focused on getting him the ball."
LaComb said another key has been a concerted effort to protect Mika and Austin from foul trouble by inserting Luke Worthington and Josh Sharp in early to absorb some fouls that may come their way. Also, in BYU’s zone, coaches have minimized putting bigs out on the perimeter where they’ve been whistled for cheap and meaningless fouls.
BYU isn’t aggressively “showing” on ball screens with its bigs like it's done in the past. “We’re more kind of leveling it off, corralling the ball and then letting our guards get back engaged. Then our bigs can release. A big part of team defense is communicating,” he said.
“We still really like the option of playing the zone, but we have to be smarter. Some teams like to attack the zone in the post very aggressively like Gonzaga. Some like to get it in the high post and others overload one side of the zone and try to find success that way with 3-point shooters.”
Will there be any retaliation against Mika on this road trip for physical play in Provo that led to multiple trips to the monitor by officials to see what transpired?
LaComb said looking at film, Mika definitely was involved in physical play. “A lot of times those — just by virtue that he’s in there mixing it up more — just happen. But we’ve got to be prepared going on the road. Pacific and St. Mary’s are two of the more physical teams in the league. San Francisco is another. Definitely we’ll have to be prepared for physical play, battle and work through some things.”
The Cougars played three home games in 49 days during a stretch from November through January and opened up with road losses to Utah, Oregon, LMU and Pepperdine.
To a man, this team believes it is far different as a squad today.
Beginning Thursday night, we shall see.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].