Sporting an 8-7 nonconference record, the BYU men’s basketball team has experienced a mixed bag of results heading into its league opener at Pacific on Thursday night. Victories over Utah and Utah State were offset by losses to Weber State, Illinois State and UNLV. So what’s the problem? Cougar Insiders Dick Harmon, Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney offer their opinions, which run the gamut. They also discuss whether now is the time to offer football coach Kalani Sitake an extension. What are the pros and cons? That and much more on this week’s episode.
Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the episode. It's been edited for clarity.
Dick Harmon: In this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast we're going to talk recruiting. We're going to talk about BYU's basketball season, we're going to break down the decision to extend Kalani Sitake's contract — should it be right now? Or should they wait to the end of the very tough schedule next season. We'll also talk about Zach Wilson and some things that people have to say about him and his ability. That and much more in this edition of the Cougar Insiders podcast.
Welcome to Cougar insiders podcast, I'm Dick Harmon, columnist for the Deseret News, along with beat writers Jeff Call and Brandon Gurney. We're coming to you from Thanksgiving Point and we're talking BYU sports. This podcast is brought to you by the Salt Lake Stallions, a professional football team. It will be in town beginning in February when their season starts. You can get ticket information at SaltLakeStallions.com or call 833-223-2019.
Gentlemen, a new year, a new basketball season has started, preseason is over with. Jeff Call you're going on the road to cover these Cougars. Do they have a chance to doing anything different than we've seen them do in preseason or previous years?
Jeff Call: Well I think based on what they've done, they're on a three-game losing streak right now, poor defense, lot of turnovers, not very good 3-point shooting, that's kind of the pattern they've set this year. I don't know why, I wish I knew why. I don't think Dave Rose knows why. You know we met with Dave and some players yesterday, and they've had some spirited practices and are trying to circle the wagons again. They did show earlier this season that they could snap out of a three-game losing streak, but they did that at home. Now they're going on the road against a Pacific team, to start out, that's improved. And then they've got to play the old nemesis at St. Mary's. So you look at it, you think there's a good chance they could come home with a losing record in the WCC and a losing record overall. Which, under Dave Rose, just hasn't happened. So I don't know what the funk is for this team, why they're not reaching their potential, because they've got the players to certainly have a better record they have now. But talking to them yesterday, this is a chance for a fresh start. They look at it that they're 0-0 and it's time to put things together. Let's see if we think they can do that.
DH: How do you think they'll do on this road trip, knowing that they've just lost the last three?
JC: Yeah it's gonna be tough. I mean Pacific has given BYU problems out there in Stockton. Last year they lost a really close game on the road. If you remember, I think Zac Seljaas had a chance to either tie or win the game late and the shot didn't fall. And then we all know about St. Mary's. BYU has only won once in the years they've been in the West Coast Conference there in Moraga, Calif. So it's a tough way to start. And Dave Rose mentioned yesterday that the conference didn't do BYU any favors by having two road games to start the conference schedule, especially considering this team has not played at home since Dec. 12. It's almost a month that they've been just on the road, and now they start WCC play on the road.
DH: This is, I think, the worst preseason record that BYU's had in probably four or five years. So this is a watermark thing to overcome. Brandon Gurney, what's the most positive thing that we can say about BYU's basketball team after the last six weeks?
Brandon Gurney: That they consistently give the unexpected. So now that everyone expects them to go down the hole or whatever, they might turn it around. Who knows? Maybe. That's all I got, Dick. I really believe there's a lack of talent on this team. I mean, you look at guys like Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws, yeah, they're fine, right? But then after that, Jahshire Hardnett, he's fine. But is he really a guy that should be maybe a third option? No. Zac Seljaas really hasn't developed since being a freshman and Connor Harding, I thought that was the guy who was going to see a lot of upward mobility. He's really struggled against the more athletic teams that BYU's played recently, where he's just kind of been a non factor. You saw him not play hardly at all in the second half against Mississippi State. Just because he's kind of struggled with that. And he's a freshman. I still think he can be good. But I think there's a talent bomb on this team. Nick Emery, I mean, it's hard to assign any expectations to him just with what he's been through. But he struggled as well. He hasn't provided the impact that maybe we thought he would in that first big game back. I was like, yeah, he's gonna fit right in and that hasn't really happened. So I just struggled, looking at this roster, to find impact guys, especially from the young class. Gavin Baxter, I mean, he's nowhere near being ready to contribute on a consistent basis. I still like his potential. But I really think there's a lack of talent on this team.
DH: True or false, Brandon, BYU has more ESPN top 300 players on this roster than anybody in the league except Gonzaga. True or false?
BG: Oh, it's true. But assigning that to recruiting ranking, I mean, that goes away once they come. And maybe it's a lack of development. And I've always wondered with these in-state guys, I mean, basketball is really good in-state. They really do a very good job developing these guys. And maybe they topped out, maybe they pretty much topped out. These guys were phenomenal in high school and you really haven't seen that upward mobility. And I think Zac Seljaas is kind of the poster boy for that. Freshman year, yeah, he's going to be really good. And he hasn't really taken that next step. And I also wonder about the motivation of this team. I think playing in the West Coast Conference is a big thing. I think it's a big detriment. I really do. I have to wonder if guys like Eric Mika would stick around if they played in a better conference. Not to mention Eli Bryant.
It's kind of hard to assign that, there's a lot of varying factors, but when a team's doing what BYU has, where it's just kind of meh, you wonder about motivation. I've always wondered about motivation with this BYU team, because they're playing in high school gyms against teams that don't really hate them. There's hardly any atmosphere. It's just me. What's the difference between going to Pacific and Pepperdine or San Diego.
DH: The weather's pretty good though, the beaches are nice. Restaurants are great. Hotel rates are really high.
BG: I don't know, I think you question everything because it's pretty uninspired basketball we're seeing. And maybe they will turn around, we'll see.
DH: Well this past weekend we had an opportunity to write a column about Kalani Sitake. It's really kind of a tenuous time for BYU football. Do they sign him to an extension of his contract, which is ending in 12 months, or do they just let it play out and see where it goes? I think recruiting, right now it's really important to send a signal to recruits that he's going to be around for a while and I don't know that you bring in anybody that's going to be up and running, having BYU's political cobweb, you know, that's spread across the landscape when it comes to the Honor Code, admissions, with getting people into school, academic requirements, all these landmines that Kalani has been trying to move his way through and Bronco Mendenhall did, it was not easy for him, it was very hard and frustrating for him to bring in a new guy and have to do that. But there are recruits out there that he signed two years ago on missions, at least four of them, that are very committed to Kalani Sitake. If they don't re-up him and they don't think he's coming back, those guys don't show up. You just signed a recruiting class, was pretty decent, wasn't great but was pretty good. But how many of those guys after missions would come back knowing Kalani Sitake was not there. He was recruited to be a recruiter, he's identified kids through the eighth grade, ninth grade, 12th grade that have either signed or they've gone to Alabama, Washington, Stanford or Southern Cal or Utah, but he's identified them, he's been able to recruit them, and it's been harder than a lot of people thought. But he was signed to be a recruiter. Jeff Call, good idea to do it right now or to wait out the season? A very, very tough scheduled season and then do it at the end of that?
JC: Yeah, I think it's important that BYU move on this now if that's what they want to do, because, you know, from talking to Tom Holmoe, or emailing a couple weeks ago, I mean, Kalani has Tom's support, and he's behind Kalani, so why not just make it official and more public and send that message to recruits and the fans that, you know, Kalani is the man and we're fully behind him. And we're going to move to the future. I liked your column, Dick, you made some great points, because you can argue the side that BYU has been mediocre for three years, overall, under Kalani Sitake. They haven't won a lot of home games. they've In fact, they've struggled at home for reasons I don't understand. But again, you look at the full body of work and the things that Kalani has had to go through to understand that this job, I think that's really something that's underestimated. Because BYU is a unique job. I mean, it's different from any other job out there, what coaches are expected to do, what is required of them, and now with three seasons, Kalani has identified those potential problems. I think he's learned a lot about the job and how to do it. So now he's in a position where you got to think that moving forward, he gets some things and he's going to eliminate a lot of mistakes and maybe rookie mistakes that he may have made early on.
So yeah, it's time to say, OK, Kalani, you're our man. I mean, especially coming off that bowl win. You know, there's a lot of optimism now that wasn't there earlier. And so yeah, it's time for BYU to move on this.
DH: Brandon Gurney, BYU does not hire experienced coaches and bring them in. They don't do that. Head coaches at other places that have been successful head coaches. They do not hire those kind of people. They did hire Gary Crowton, who was at Louisiana Tech and had been with the Chicago Bears. But LaVell Edwards was an elevated defensive coordinator, Bronco Mendenhall was an elevated defensive coordinator, and you have Kalani Sitake who was a defensive coordinator at Utah and Oregon State. They always try to catch people on the upswing and develop them. Is this a time to let him develop, to see what he can be? Because I don't think they're going to go hire an experienced head coach. People say Lance Anderson at Stanford, but he's never been a head coach before. Darrell Bevell, they mention his name, that crops up. But where is the experienced head coach? They've tried to hire Kyle Whittingham three times and he's declined. But who are they going to hire that's a head coach that's going to come to BYU and put up with some security officer putting a boot on his tire when he's parked in the wrong spot. And the other things he has to put up with, the board messages, what should they be doing right now with Kalani Sitake? Waiting and see if he's OK and let him go or re-sign him now?
BG: You make a really good argument, Dick. And I'm not opposed to that at all. Because you look at his body of work, yeah, big thud in 2017, everyone knows that. But I maintain he's made the right moves every step of the way since then, he got rid of some guys on staff that really shouldn't have been there. And I'm a believer in this offensive staff, we have people point out the numbers. Now they're not significantly better than Detmer's numbers. But I challenge any of those fans to just really think, are you saying Ty Detmer's offense was better than what you saw this year? Especially the way it closed? No. I believe that this offensive staff is talented, I think there's a lot of good minds they're developing, it was Jeff Grimes's first year as an offensive coordinator. If they can keep Aaron Roderick on staff and all that together, I really like where this offense is going. And you look at the class level of what they were playing? Wow. Yeah, they did well, relatively well, and I think there's a lot of upward momentum. The progression we saw in the bowl game, I think is something very tangible and something very notable of what might come in the future. And yeah there's a lot of momentum within the program right now, which is something we haven't said for a long time with BYU football.
DH: Real quick, I want to get your reaction to this email that I received. I won't mention the guy's name because I haven't asked his permission, but the things that he has is worth getting your comment on.
He writes, "I sincerely wish there was more balanced reporting for BYU sports at the Deseret News. And I'm saying this as a fan. Seriously, Sitake a contract extension? And you neglected to mention the offensive stats, which ended a very similar to Detmer's. The idea for extensions are to reward successful coaches and or try to keep them. Sitake, nor his coaching staff, are not going anywhere. Terrible showings with Utah, Utah State, Northern Illinois who lost to UAB in their bowl game, and Boise State, and two more wins against very beatable UMass and New Mexico State are not reasons to extend. I know you really like Tom Holmoe and Sitake, but I wish writers would keep personal feelings out of their articles and write more balanced stuff. This is why journalism has changed significantly over the years. Sitake still needs to prove himself. He's 20-19, many of his losses were very winnable games. I'd encourage, though I'm sure I'll be ignored, you and Mr. Call and Mr. Gurney to write more balanced articles, even if it goes against your friendships with Holmoe and Sitake, or whomever. That seems to be true journalism to be able to do that."
Brandon Gurney, let's have you go first.
BG: We don't offer opinion articles. I mean, my boss right here doesn't let us do that. You're kind of the guy there, Dick, so why is it directed at me and Jeff? I mean, come on, leave us alone.
JC: I guess I get what he's saying, but do you know how many times I wrote the word abysmal or dismal last year? Over and over and over again. About certain wins, about the record, about performance. I think we're fair in criticizing BYU when things went bad, but you know I think fans also want to see things that maybe you would say on a message board or something like that. He makes some good points, I mean we talked about earlier, Kalani has had a very bad record against the rivals and that matters. He's gotta turn that around somehow, and he's got to do that soon. But on the other hand, I do think that you got to put into context what Kalani's trying to do, the changes he's made, the unique climate and atmosphere that he's coaching in right now. And he just needs some time to sort things out and let it play out. See how he does.
BG: He doesn't make a bad argument, a lot of his points. But he loses me when he starts talking about how chummy we are with Holmoe. No one is chummy with Holmoe. He does email interviews. You don't talk to him. Kalani sure, but Holmoe? No.
DH: I want to thank him. I won't mention his name. But thank him for the feedback. The one thing, in covering BYU football and basketball for 44 years, I will tell you this. BYU fans are very passionate and BYU's very fortunate to have the passionate fans that they do. They show up, they travel well, they buy tickets, they support. In this market, I will say, the thing that moves the needle in this market, whether it be broadcast, radio, TV, the newsprint, the internet, is BYU. BYU fans care about their product and I want to thank him for his feedback. I think he's got a few points there and I want to say that.
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Brandon Gurney, let's go to the message boards. What's out there in cyberspace?
BG: Well one thing that was notable, what was interesting to me is fans watching the Rose Bowl. Ty Jones, they mentioned he's from Utah. What? A guy from Provo, Utah? Why isn't he at BYU? Each recruit has their own story and all, that but I covered Ty Jones. BYU was never in the picture with that kid. And maybe it was the wrong time and whatnot, but it's just a theme that I've been drumming on for a while. BYU's got to get a foothold in-state where these kids like Ty Jones, who's not LDS but he went to Provo High School, which is literally right across the street from BYU. You'd like to see them at least be in play for these guys. In-state guys that are always looking at BYU, no matter what. And I think with this new offense, with what Zach Wilson's doing, you might see some mobility with that. Because an offensive receiver just in past years is like, really BYU? It's not really a place where you'd even consider. But you want to see BYU rise to the point where it's like, yeah, I remember Ty Jones. He was really interested but we just missed out. At least to that. But where fans don't even know who the kid is because he gave BYU no interest, you want to see BYU move beyond that. BYU was absolutely there when I started covering recruiting about 15 years ago.
DH: Well, you mentioned the impact of Zach Wilson in this program. And I said many, many times, and you guys have heard me, the one thing that makes BYU work is to have a quarterback that is talented enough to pass and overcome all the obstacles of an opponent and their defense with speed and size and other things. You see that in Zach Wilson. I had an opportunity before the season began to talk to three experts who train quarterbacks and they gave me a preview of what they thought would happen with Zach Wilson. I wrote a column that will be coming out in the next few hours about that and about their projections about what happened. One of these guys, Riley Jensen, who is a member the Hall of Fame at Snow College, a former Utah State and BYU quarterback and works with Alta High School, he had this to say:
Riley Jensen: The thing that I've always thought about Zach Wilson is that he walks like a quarterback, talks like a quarterback, acts like a quarterbacks. If he's not the starter at the beginning of the year, he'll be a starter at BYU and I didn't know whether that would be during this season or in the future, but that he was going to be a big-time quarterback. I actually think that he has even more upside because I don't think they've really unleashed him at all. I've spoken to a lot of people who've talked about how they haven't really let him do much at all. In the Boise game it was a real simple passing game package. And I don't know if that's a cut to the coaches or not, but I feel like they finally trust him and it's just going to get better. I don't know if he was ready or not. I feel like he was but to me, the sky's the limit. I tweeted out, I don't care who you are, I don't care what the competition is, if you go 18 for 18 in a football game you're doing something right. It doesn't matter if you're playing against, to steal a 1984 phrase, "Bo Diddley Tech." I'm sure he didn't go 18 for 18 in high school in any game. It's not easy to do what he did at all. They keep putting pieces around him, you know, I think the freshman class at BYU is really good. I guess what would be the sophomore class now. If they follow that up with another good class and you give him some weapons, it's going to be even better. And I don't even think they're using Dallin Holker right, that's just a side note. When they recruited him, Ed Larsen told them, you don't want to put this guy's hand in the ground and turn him into a blocker, you want this guy in the slot because he's a matchup nightmare. And if they start figuring that out. Zach's a really good quarterback, he's always been super respectful, super coachable. So it's kind of fun.
I guess the last thing I'd say about that, because I'm really rooting for the Cammon Coopers and the Zach Wilsons of the world to do really well, because I think there's been really good quarterbacks in the state of Utah for a long time. Just nobody's gone to the next level and really shown it yet and if these two guys can show it, then I think it'll open up the doors to a lot of people recruiting the state of Utah. Obviously BYU, Utah, and Utah State will have an opportunity to get the ones that they want, but I think other teams will be in here trying to find out what the secret sauce is because there's some good quarterbacks here.
DH: Jeff Call, let's have the rest of the story. What have you got for us?
JC: I took a little bit of time off after the bowl game. Kent was gracious enough to give me some time off to enjoy Christmas and things. And one of the things I was thinking of these last few days, watching all these bowl games and that was a lot of fun, there were some bad games, some really good games, but I couldn't help but look ahead to next year and you look at the schedule — those first four games, I mean, Utah at home, at Tennessee, a place BYU's never played, then you've got USC and Washington. And you look at it and you kind of balance that with the optimism, the forward momentum that we saw after the bowl game. And then the reality is that's a really tough way to start a season. And they may be way better next year. But the record may not reflect it because of the schedule. And then I go back and think, look how wrong we were about this past season. In September, I think some people thought BYU would only win one game, they end up winning three. You just really never know. USC, you look at that team, a storied program that just hired Kliff Kingsbury as their the offensive coordinator. Tennessee is expected be much improved, they had a great recruiting class. Washington is just off of a Rose Bowl game, a loss. So it will be fun during the off season to kind of speculate, because you really never know. That's what it comes down to.
DH: That's the thing. I think if you play a schedule like that, you've got to be realistic now because it happens in all those leagues, is you're going to be lucky to go .500. And you might be about .300, and that's probably about what is expected out of teams that play a schedule like that. But yet we were both in Madison, Wisconsin. We saw BYU play them toe to toe, dominate them in some aspects, and come out with the win. It will be very interesting to see.
JC: Even Arizona. I don't think very many of us expected them to beat Arizona, to start the season with a brand new offensive coordinator, new offense, yet they were able to do it. It's hard to predict.
DH: Brandon Gurney, before we wind this up, what's the latest that's happening in recruiting? Let's go football.
BG: Not much. I think BYU's going to kind of swing for the fences for this February signing day. The big land would be Logan Sagapolo, the offensive line prospect from Skyridge High School. He's kind of the big guy out there right now, a guy who has multiple offers. He hasn't really indicated any which way where he's leaning, but he's a mission first kid which automatically helps BYU's chances in that regard. I think Puka Nacua is a pipe dream, I'm just not seeing that, but another kid that I expect BYU to sign is a kid named Cade Albright. A guy that was pretty heavily recruited by Utah, he's kind of an outside linebacker type from Southern California. Outside of him it's really hard for me to pinpoint any guys. And then there might be a lot of movement. I still think they're going to try to bring in a running back that can contribute immediately. But beyond that, I don't think there's a lot of room to offer kids. And I think they're pretty much done.
DH: Final word, gentlemen, and I'll go first. I think just coming off what you said, Brandon Gurney, Kalani has got three non-LDS recruiters on his staff in Ryan Pugh and Jeff Grimes and AJ Steward. They've been given pretty well six, seven or eight months to do their craft, using their approach and their experience and their backgrounds. I don't think it's been long enough for them to get the traction that they need. I'm thinking that they might be able to, especially A.J. Steward, go and get an athlete. What would be listed as an athlete and bring them in as a running back and turn that in the next 30 days. I could be wrong, but I really expect and I would hope that he would be the one that could do that. Pugh might be able to do it with his ties to the Deep South, and Grimes, of course, a native of Texas. They might be able to pull that off, I don't know. Final word, Jeff Call
JC: That's what I was going to talk about, that BYU needs a running back. They lose Squally Canada, they lose Matt Hadley. Lopini Katoa showed some flashes that he could be a really good back, but he hasn't proven that he could be consistent and stay healthy. Brandon, do you think BYU has any chance of signing anybody in February or during the offseason? A grad transfer, anybody that could come in? Because we know that they had offers out to multiple running backs and none of that panned out.
BG: Nothing with traction right now. Still kind of a long way, we're still a month away from the last signing period, so I don't know. We'll see what comes about. But I do believe they need a running back. You just look at the attrition rate. I mean, Lopini Katoa or not, I think this year showed you need a lot of running backs, a lot of capable running backs, and they don't have that right now.
DH: And if you're counting on Ula Tolutau, who was suspended this year coming back. I don't think that you would bet on that. He's been asked to do some things, I don't think those things have been done. Don't count on him. Kind of a waste of talent from East High School. It's too bad, he had a lot of potential.12 comments on this story
Gentlemen, thanks for joining us on this episode of the Cougar Insiders podcast. We'd love to hear from you through email at cougarinsiders@DeseretNews.com. And please subscribe or download our podcast wherever you find that. We're working to deliver you the most up to date information on BYU sports. And we'd love to have you join us. We also like to thank our sponsor that the Salt Lake Stallions. You can get information about the Stallions and their schedule and their team at SaltLakeStallions.com or 833-223-2019. Thanks for being with us.