SALT LAKE CITY — BYU’s basketball program is in a rut and has been for years. It’s not great and not bad, but somewhere in between. The Cougars are capable of pushing nationally ranked Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s to the limit, but lose to Pacific and Loyola Marymount. They eke out overtime wins over San Francisco and Pepperdine then lose to San Diego. That summarizes the state of the program.
The Cougars haven’t finished at the top of conference standings since 2010-11, the year before they joined the West Coast Conference, and haven’t won a conference postseason tournament (and the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament that comes with it) since 2001. They are likely to be excluded from next month’s NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year.
BYU likes to tout its 13 straight 20-win seasons, but that hasn’t been a legitimate benchmark for success since teams began playing 30-35 games per season years ago. The Cougars are 13-37 against ranked opponents during the past 13 years. They’ve appeared in the top 25 of the final national rankings only three times since the 1980s.
Given all of the above, it’s fair to wonder if the Cougars are doing everything they can to improve their lot in the sport.
The answer is no.
BYU, which has a number of unique challenges, has failed to utilize one of the few advantages it has over most schools. The school — motto: “The World is Our Campus” — has an international reach that few rivals can equal. It is owned by an international church that has more members outside the United States than in it.
Know how many foreign players BYU has on its roster this season? Zero.
While the NBA and college games have turned to international players, BYU seems to be headed the other direction. Head coach Dave Rose has rostered eight foreign players in 13 years, but only two since 2011 and none since 2013. But it’s not just Rose who failed to sign international players. There have been only two other foreigners on the team since 2000.
This season there are just two teams in the WCC that don’t have foreign players — Pacific and BYU. The rest of the league has recruited heavily from the international ranks, with 36 players spread among eight teams (or an average of 4½ per team). They come from Germany, Australia, France, Japan, Denmark, Czech Republic, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, England, Puerto Rico, Mali, Estonia, Serbia and Latvia.
BYU’s archrival has also reached far and wide for recruits. Since Larry Krystkowiak became the head coach at Utah in 2011, the Utes have had six international players, hailing from Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Brazil and Canada.
This reflects the trend in the NBA, which has had more than 100 international players for four consecutive years. In 1980, less than 2 percent of the league’s players were foreigners; now it’s nearly 30 percent. This year there are 108 players representing 42 countries.
The American game of basketball has gone global — except at BYU. BYU coaches not only don’t leave the U.S. to sign players, they barely leave Utah — actually, they barely cross county lines. In the last eight seasons, 57 roster spots were filled by recruits from Utah high schools — an average of seven per season — and 46 of those spots were taken by players from Utah County.
During that time, BYU also has had an average of 3.6 recruits from surrounding states, which means players from Utah and the Mountain West make up an average of 10.6 players annually on BYU’s roster. This season, the Cougars have five Utahns on the roster, but only because Eric Mika declared early for the draft and Nick Emery dropped out of school.
It’s not as if BYU has not had success with foreign players. Kresimir Cosic (Croatia) rivals Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette as the best player in school history. Timo Saarelainen (Finland) was a fine player in the ’80s, and Rafael Araujo (Brazil) was the eighth pick of the 2004 NBA draft.
The absence of international players is baffling for a school that represents a worldwide church. According to the LDS website, the Mormon Church has members in 189 countries, and 70,000 missionaries around the world. There are more than 1,300 international students at BYU, representing 105 countries. Yet most of the basketball players come from high schools just down the road or across the street from BYU.
Maybe BYU is content with the status quo. If not, the Cougars might have to tap into a major source of athletic talent.