SALT LAKE CITY — The BYU basketball program — like its football counterpart — is at a crossroads. The program has stagnated, having delivered years of lackluster performances. Dave Rose resigned last week after 14 seasons as head coach, tired and “disinterested” (his word). It’s time to think of the future — and to think bolder, or at least different.
Where to begin? Start by escaping the West Coast Conference, which seems to have dragged down BYU (or at least hastened its downturn); don’t go for the obvious choices for a coach; and whoever the coach is, he should change the status quo (especially recruiting).
The future at this point does not look promising. Unless the new coach can convince him otherwise, Yoeli Childs, one of the team’s top two players, will skip his senior season to turn pro — making it three years in a row a player has chosen to do so. A year from now, the team’s other top player, TJ Haws, will be gone, as will the embattled and once-promising Nick Emery. There are no superstars in the Utah high school ranks or, more specifically, in Utah Valley, which pretty much covers BYU’s recruiting territory these days. And then there are those NCAA sanctions, which includes a loss of a scholarship and recruiting restrictions.
Even under these circumstances you have to wonder why the school can’t field a basketball team that ranks among the top 68 in the country (which, come to think of it, is a modest goal).
BYU has plenty of assets: one of the biggest arenas in the country; a financial commitment from the school’s owners; a worldwide fan base and an (untapped) international recruiting reach; a solid tradition; an inside track to a fairly large group of recruits who share the school’s faith.
The Cougars certainly have proven they can play at a high level. They’re tied for 24th in total number of NCAA Tournament berths, with 29. Now they seem content to count 20-win seasons (an outdated way of quantifying success in this era of 35-game seasons).
And yet this is the state of the Cougars:
• They haven’t earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament since 2014 (unless you count the 2015 First Four game, which BYU lost). This year’s team was even passed over by the NIT. Now that hurts. That means they weren’t even among the top 100 teams in the country. Preceding this dry spell, the Cougars had appeared in the NCAA Tournament 10 times in 14 years.
• They haven’t finished in the top 25 of the national polls since the 2010-11 season. In the widely respected Pomeroy rankings, which began in 2002, the Cougars’ average annual ranking is 53.9, but in the last three years they have ranked 80th, 73rd and 88th, respectively — by far their lowest rankings in 13 years. Their strength of schedule was 91st this season, 128th last season, 131st the year before that.
• They are 13-41 against ranked opponents the last 14 years.
• They haven’t won a conference regular-season championship since 2010-11 and no conference tournament championship since 2001 — this despite spending the last eight seasons in the mid-tier (at best) WCC. They’ve finished third five times and second three times.
The Cougars are failing to land some of the top players who are members of the school’s church, and the best of those who do join the team don’t stick around long. Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant left the program early, in 2017 and 2018, respectively, to become eligible for the NBA draft.
Leaving early for the draft in today’s college game is to be expected, but neither Mika nor Bryant was drafted and really had no reason to think they would be; they wound up in the European leagues. That does not reflect well on the BYU program; the feeling is that they can’t hone their skills for the next level at BYU and have to take otherwise unappealing options because of it. Childs announced last week that he plans to turn pro.
The Cougars need to make changes to succeed, but please don’t join those who say the school's honor code should be dumbed down for athletes. That isn’t going anywhere, nor should it, not at a school that has so clearly stated a bigger purpose. Any compromise would be pandering to big-time athletics, and there certainly cannot be two sets of rules for students.
The school demonstrated how sincere it is about the honor code when it took a courageous stand in suspending future NBA player Brandon Davis in 2011 when it surely would (and did) hurt a very good team, one that advanced to the Sweet 16 and won 32 games anyway.
There are other things the school can do to help its cause. Start here: When it comes to recruiting, try leaving the state or even the country. In the last nine seasons, 64 roster spots were filled by recruits from Utah high schools — an average of seven per season — and 50 of those spots were taken by players from Utah County. That hasn’t worked out so well. If future recruiting budgets don’t include a few airline tickets, the results will be the same.
This seems strange for a school which, for all its perceived recruiting disadvantages (see the honor code), has an international reach that few other schools enjoy because of its affiliation to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has 16 million members around the world. While the NBA and many college teams — including most of BYU’s league rivals — sign international players, BYU has largely ignored this source of talent. The Cougars have rostered just two foreign players since 2011, none since 2013, and failed to utilize one of the few recruiting advantages it possesses.
There’s one other move the school should make: Get out of the WCC. The Cougars’ decline seems to have begun when they left the Mountain West Conference for the WCC, starting with the 2011-12 school year. That doesn’t make sense given how average the league is, but there it is: Before joining the WCC the Cougars were rolling — four regular-season Mountain West titles and three top-25 finishes in five years. Since then … see above.
If you played a game of Which One’s Not Like the Other Ones, the answer would be obvious: BYU. It’s a collection of small schools that play in small, old gyms, and seven of the 10 members are based in California. For all practical purposes, it’s a three-team league — it’s Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, BYU and then everyone else.93 comments on this story
There are no real rivalries, especially from BYU’s perspective, and for all the deficiencies of the Mountain West Conference, at least the Cougars have established and familiar rivals there, if not better competition. The WCC has little to offer BYU fans, which, aside from a poor brand of basketball, might also account for game attendance, which has declined from 18,714 during the Jimmer Fredette season of 2010-11 to 11,958 this season.
BYU has a choice to make: Stay with the status quo or shake things up. BYU fans should hope they choose the latter.