PROVO — If Dalton Nixon had been healthy and developing the past month instead of nursing a month-long injury, would BYU have defeated Saint Mary’s before overtime and had enough defensively to beat Pacific on the road?
It is a question nobody can answer.
But there is little doubt Nixon’s production as a rebounder and defender was a critical building block for Dave Rose and the Cougars early in the season. He then suffered a stress fracture and hasn’t been on the court since Dec. 6.
When he will return is up to medical personnel and they aren’t rushing things, opting for a conservative rehab approach.
To say BYU would be undefeated in WCC play with Nixon is a two-edged answer. It is fair to suggest, but also unrealistic to weigh.
“That would take the credit away from the teams that beat us,” said BYU assistant coach Tim LaComb. “The crazy thing about athletics is everybody is dealing with injuries and setbacks and things like that so it’s all about dealing with what you have.”
LaComb isn't brash enough to say BYU would not have lost those games, but he believes in his heart the Cougars would have been in a better position to win them.
“I think Dalton had proved his worth to our team," he said. "He brought a ton of energy, he bought a ton of physicality. One thing he does as good as anybody is he gets us extra possessions. In games where one or two extra possessions has made the difference and the deciding factor, that is the situation that would have benefited us the most.”
Nixon’s brief appearances for the Cougars before conference play were highlighted by key rebounds, precise and timely screens, and his commitment to being in the right place defensively both at the point of ball attack and away from the ball.
Time and again, Nixon would grab a rebound and score off it, efficiently using his 6-foot-7 frame and large base around the key.
Perhaps more importantly, BYU was making inroads in developing a process with its offense and defense, chipping away at role-playing and chemistry and getting everyone on the same page. When Nixon went down, it necessitated a change and adjustment that has progressed but is still ongoing.
The Cougars are coming off their best overall 40-minute performance in a convincing road win at Santa Clara. In that game, the Cougars shot over 70 percent from the field in the first half and leading scorer Yoeli Childs almost had a triple-double, earning him WCC Player of the Week honors.
There is still work to do, but that game may have provided a confidence boost for BYU.
“It showed what we were capable of doing along the way but it came after a particularly disappointing week for us,” said LaComb. “To put that behind us and have everything come together on the offensive and defensive ends. That’s been the goal of this coaching staff and emphasis on the team to get better every day.”
The Cougars still have plenty to work on. Better execution of game plans; building on that is imperative. Offensively, that includes better spacing, screens, cuts and more effective plays against various defenses. Those aspects must get sharper.
“Being able to read and react in making the right plays is something we are getting better at," LaComb said."Each guy understands it is an offense that if they try and take something away, there are other options that we need to get to with others."
Defensively, BYU has to more effectively challenge opponents.
“We’ve got five guys connected on a string and they understand the way we get wins is to get stops, get more kills. Those are the things we have emphasized and worked on and players have bought in. We just need to be better at it. We’ve always talked about it in terms of a process instead of immediate results. I think we’re getting closer to that.”
The Cougars host Loyola Marymount Thursday at 9 p.m.
It is unknown when Nixon may reappear on the court.
It is also unknown that when he does, how long will it take him to perform at the level he did the first week of December.