PROVO — For BYU, its season-ending loss came in an unfamiliar place.
In 12 seasons under coach Dave Rose, the Cougars had never finished a season at the Marriott Center — until Wednesday’s 105-89 setback against UT Arlington in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Over the past dozen years, BYU has bowed out in various locations throughout the country: at Houston in a first-round NIT loss in Rose’s first season; in the NCAA Tournament (at Lexington, Kentucky; Anaheim, California; Philadelphia; Oklahoma City; New Orleans; Louisville, Kentucky; Milwaukee; Dayton, Ohio); and twice in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“This is new for us as far as our staff is concerned,” said Rose.
BYU finished with a 22-12 record in a campaign highlighted by the historic upset of No. 1 ranked, undefeated Gonzaga on the road in the regular-season finale. But there were plenty of lows — falling at home to Utah Valley; losing on the road to San Diego, Pepperdine and Santa Clara; getting throttled by 31 points against Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament and Wednesday’s humbling loss to UTA.
Going into the game against the Mavericks, the Cougars knew that, thanks to the proliferation of upsets in the NIT first round, their path to New York City and another visit to Madison Square Garden for the semifinals was paved with three home games.
“We were the highest seed remaining in the bracket,” Rose said.
Then BYU fell victim to an upset itself. The Cougars couldn’t get it done defensively against UT Arlington's offensive firepower.
As Rose said, Wednesday’s setback was “a microcosm of the season,” featuring personnel issues (guard Elijah Bryant didn’t play due to a recurring knee injury while TJ Haws and Yoeli Childs were battling illness), poor defense (the Mavericks scored 62 first-half points and shot 55 percent from the floor on the night) and inconsistent play (the Cougars had 20 turnovers and UTA scored 32 points off those turnovers).
“Being young and then having a couple of key guys going down and battling injuries, it seemed like there were only a couple of guys at practice that could go full speed,” said forward Eric Mika, who scored 29 points and grabbed seven rebounds Wednesday.
All season long, the Cougars struggled with inexperience and untimely injuries. “You add those two things together,” Rose said, “and it led to some real challenges.”
So where does BYU go from here?
“The only thing that I can see right now is that we need to work,” Rose said. “Our players need to go to work, our coaches need to go to work. We need to find a group of guys that can come together and be able to overcome a lot of issues that we weren’t able to overcome this year. I look forward to it.”
Every offseason, there are personnel issues to sort through. Transfers are always possible.
"I have opened my mouth and said things, and then next day things have changed,” Rose said. “We’ll just take it a day at a time and see where we go and try to put a team together that we think can compete for championships. Hopefully we can get that done.”
BYU is losing its only two seniors, Kyle Davis and LJ Rose, who missed significant time this season due to injuries. Freshman guard Colby Leifson, who scored 10 points in five minutes against UTA, is expected to leave on a mission.
Scheduled to return from missions before the 2017-18 season are Ryan Andrus, Luke Worthington and Dalton Nixon.
The Cougars are hopeful that brighter days are ahead and that when they finish next season it will be somewhere other than the Marriott Center — preferably the NCAA Tournament.
But, as Rose acknowledged, to get to that point, BYU has a lot of work to do.
“It’s tough. But in life, the hardest things you go through is always rewarding,” Mika said. “It’s never easy closing a season. It’s a weird feeling. You’re not used to it. But we’ll pick it up, we’ll figure it out, we’ll get better. We talked about just getting better. We’ve got to remember this.”