1 of 4
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Brigham Young Cougars center Corbin Kaufusi (44) fights for the ball with several Santa Clara Broncos during the West Coast Conference Basketball Championships in Las Vegas Saturday, March 7, 2015
As soon as (Kaufusi) started playing, I knew he’d be good. He’s very athletic. He’s shown flashes of it and now he knows his role and he knows what to do. —Kyle Collinsworth

LAS VEGAS — Corbin Kaufusi is improving. For Dave Rose and BYU, that couldn’t come at a better time.

The freshman is knocking shots out of the air, rebounding with authority but more importantly he’s becoming a dependable defender.

The No. 2-seeded Cougars play No. 6 Portland Monday night in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament at Orleans Arena. There are a lot of things Rose needs his team to improve upon including situational strategy down the stretch. It almost cost BYU in the final minute Saturday against Santa Clara.

A key part of BYU’s plan against Portland is how to defend Portland’s 6-foot -11 big men, seniors Thomas van der Mars and Volodymyr Gerun.

Kaufusi, whose grandparents migrated to America from Tonga, fits the bill. In BYU’s 82-69 win over Portland just over a week ago, Kaufusi had 6 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes but more important, showed he has matured.

“Corbin has become a rim protector,” said Rose after Kaufusi’s 7 points and 7 rebounds with 2 blocked shots in Saturday’s quarterfinal WCC win (BYU's seventh straight) over Santa Clara.

“He’s a huge part of our success the last month,” said Rose. “We found a pretty good rotation from our roster and Corbin has been able to take his minutes from around 13 to 25 a game and be very effective with those minutes. His rebounding, his ability to protect the rim is really good and his physical presence is really welcomed by our guys.”

At 6-10, 245 pounds, Kaufusi has the DNA. As most should know from how TV commentators harp about it, his brother Bronson plays defensive end for BYU’s football team. His father and uncles on the Kaufusi side were star linemen at Utah and BYU and are physically gifted as well. His uncle on his mother’s side, Craig Garrick, played offensive line on BYU’s 1984 national championship team.

Thing is, unlike his older brother Bronson and Cougar teammates Tyler Haws, Kyle Collinsworth, Skyler Halford, Ryan Andrus, Kyle Davis, Jamal Aytes and Anson Winder, Corbin never benefited from extensive summer AAU basketball, according to his older brother.

“Corbin only played one year of high school basketball at Timpview and didn’t play AAU at all like I did,” said Bronson.

Utah’s much recognized AAU programs that have elevated the careers of stars like Ute Jordan Loveridge, and former Lone Peak High stars Tyler and TJ Haws, Jackson and Nick Emery, Eric Mika, Frank Jackson and Chris and Kyle Collinsworth from Provo High, to mention only a few.

Kyle Collinsworth acknowledges Kaufusi could have benefited from AAU ball but says the big freshman is coming on very well on the fly.

“I think Corbin’s progress is (because of) the experience he’s getting,” said Collinsworth.

“As soon as he started playing, I knew he’d be good. He’s very athletic. He’s shown flashes of it and now he knows his role and he knows what to do. The game has slowed down for him. When you are able to play more basketball in the AAU, the game does slow down. You are used to playing against more athletic players and it helps you develop.”

Collinsworth insists that if Kaufusi had played AAU ball growing up he “would only be in a BYU uniform for a year or two and then he’d go (pro).”

Kaufusi and fellow freshmen Isaac Nielsen and Ryan Andrus will be on alert against Portland’s big men.

“They’re really big and they present a big challenge for us on rebounding,” said BYU senior Tyler Haws. “We’ve got to be locked in from the tip and battle those big guys inside.”

Kaufusi will be up to the challenge, say team leaders.

“His skill work and his decision making is increasing and he’s producing,” said Collinsworth.

“He’s one heck of an athlete.”

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at [email protected].