BYU basketball finally picks up the pace

Mark Pope’s Cougars may have lost to the Zags, but they took a step forward in the process.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) as BYU hosts Gonzaga, NCAA basketball in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023.

Had this been last year, a week like this one would have been a gut-punch.

If BYU lost to Gonzaga by one point at home — when it hit 13 three-pointers and led for almost 15 minutes — and then squeaked by the WCC’s last-place team while giving up 81 points, it would have felt like a sign. Like BYU, the team constantly trying to vie for superiority and consistency in the WCC, just didn’t have it.

But this is not last year. This is a young team growing in a new system. Which is why this last week was a positive sign of growth, not a letdown.

BYU played to its new identity. It played with tempo, and consistently generated good looks while doing it.

In both games last week, the Cougars had 74 offensive possessions. It never reached that threshold in conference play before Thursday, where it actually ranked seventh in the league in tempo. Getting 74 possessions a night would put BYU among the teams with the fastest paces of play — where head coach Mark Pope wants this team to be.

For reference, the highest-tempo offense in the country is UT Rio Grande Valley — which averages 74.8 possessions per 40 minutes.

And these weren’t hollow possessions either, which is a good sign. Early in the season, BYU played almost but the offense kept stalling. In the loss to South Dakota, the Cougars had 74 possessions but only scored 68 points.

This time, BYU pushed the ball with purpose and got quality looks. Just look at this almost break here. BYU gets the ball to the corner, the defense reacts and flattens because it is playing fast, and there is an easy three-point attempt for Gideon George for an open, rhythm three. Tempo directly creates a quality look for a priority three-point shooter.

Then again here, we see a similar concept against Gonzaga. Johnson is in transition and Williams is running to the corner. The ball rotates to the corner, the defense flattens, and Johnson has an open look that would’ve otherwise been hard to get.

This last transition sequence against Gonzaga was pretty much textbook.

This is what getting good looks in transition looks like. BYU’s offense responded by scoring 91 against Pepperdine and 74 against Gonzaga.

This time BYU didn’t win in spite of its growth. It won and stayed in the game because of its new system. It has to be a sigh of relief as the 20-game mark of the season comes into focus.

Dallin Hall takes a step

Speaking of growth, how freshman guard Dallin Hall looked against Gonzaga was going to be telling.

Hall has one of the better assist rates in the WCC, and ranked 31st in the nation, but it hasn’t always looked great against the top teams. Against San Diego State, he had two assists to four turnovers. Against USC, he had one assist to three turnovers.

It is understandable; he is young But would he take a leap against Gonzaga?

hey did He had three assists to one turnover in 16 minutes. He ended with an offensive rating of 128, his best since playing Lindenwood (one of the worst teams in Division-I).

Perhaps more promising, he didn’t look sped up. Look at this fairly common action within BYU’s offense.

Hall sees Gonzaga’s Drew Timme and Nolan Hickman coverage onto him, and Timme is overplaying the screen. Hall knows the roll from Fousseyni Traore should be open, and Anton Watson is late on the help side defense.

Hall stays calm and delivers the simple pass to Traore for an easy two.

Later in the game, Hall again read Gonzaga is hard-hedging the screen. Rather than run into Timme or Hickman, he splits the defense and generates an easy three for George in the corner.

He made simple, decisive decisions against one of the better teams in the country. It was real growth for a foundational peice for Pope.

Turnovers remain an issue

This week still included a meltdown. BYU had a 10-point lead on Gonzaga late in the game, until it allowed the Zags to go on a 17-6 run to finish the night and win the game.

It was a variety of turnovers and missed assignments. Perhaps none worse than when BYU didn’t even pick up Timme, one of the best players in the country, in the final two minutes and it led to a three.

It was another reminder that BYU is still BYU right now. For all the growth this week, moments like this are going to happen as the Cougars still aren’t where they need to be.

Quick hits

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