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Provo • Shortly after the BYU basketball team's season ended with a 105-89 beatdown by Texas-Arlington in an NIT first-round game, coach Dave Rose was succinct in summing up what has to happen for the Cougars to get out of the rut the program has been stuck in the past five or so years.
"We need a lot of work," Rose said.
They could also use a talent upgrade at several positions, more depth everywhere, better luck with injuries and illnesses, an injection of mental toughness, and continued progress in establishing a defense-minded culture.
"Our players need to go to work. Our coaches need to go to work. And we need to find a group of guys that can get together and be able to overcome a lot of these issues that we weren't able to overcome this year," Rose told The Salt Lake Tribune. "The players for the most part will be pretty similar. We just need to get a couple guys back off their missions and then go to work."
The Cougars finished with a 22-12 record, a third-place finish in the West Coast Conference far behind two excellent teams that showed well in the NCAA Tournament's opening two rounds, and earned a postseason bid for the 12th straight year.
That's probably acceptable at 75-80 percent of the programs in the country. But not at BYU, which has some of the best facilities in the nation, a palace of an arena in the recently renovated Marriott Center, the best attendance in the West, and a new basketball practice facility that rivals anything out there, college or pro.
"I can't put [the season] in a couple of words, but it was definitely a growing experience for all of us, coaches and players, no matter what our role was," said star center Eric Mika. "It was challenging. Every college basketball season is going to be challenging. Every single one is going to be unique. Ours, it was definitely tough."
The 2016-17 season began with sky-high expectations, mostly due to the long-awaited reunion of three players who led nearby Lone Peak High to a mythical national prep championship: returned missionaries Mika and TJ Haws and Nick Emery, the College Sports Madness All-High Major Freshman of the Year in 2015-16.
The unbridled optimism soared even more when coach Rose said his frontcourt of Mika, returning senior Kyle Davis, injury-free junior Jamal Aytes and promising freshmen Yoeli Childs and Payton Dastrup was the deepest and most talented in his 12-year tenure.
Throw in a pair of accomplished transfers Elon's Elijah Bryant, the Colonial Athletic Association's Rookie of the Year in 2015, and L.J. Rose of Houston and Baylor and the roster looked as talented as any since Jimmer Fredette led the Cougars to the Sweet 16 in 2011.
The Cougars handled NCAA Tournament regular Princeton 82-73 on opening night and won their next three games convincingly, including a 92-62 conquest of St. Louis in which coach Travis Ford marveled over their inside presence and said they were a top-25 caliber team.
Injury bug bites
Adversity first punched the Cougars in the face in their fifth game, a 2016 NIT semifinals rematch with Valparaiso. Bryant's surgically repaired knee acted up, and BYU fell 92-89 to the Crusaders in Las Vegas.
Then came arguably the most humiliating loss in Rose's tenure, 114-101 to Utah Valley, which exposed the Cougars' soft perimeter defense with a mind-boggling display of outside shooting: a Marriott Center-record 18 3-pointers.
The Cougars recovered with a 77-63 win over Utah State in Salt Lake City, but Davis didn't play due to knee soreness. He retired from basketball four games later after playing just three minutes in a heartbreaking 75-73 loss to Illinois in Chicago.
Bryant missed 10 games, then returned for the WCC season and was arguably the team's second-best player until re-injuring his knee in the 81-50 loss to Saint Mary's in the WCC semifinals, the worst margin of defeat in Rose's head-coaching career.
The other transfer, L.J. Rose, was not much of a shooter or offensive threat, but he was a fine rebounder for a guard and a cool, calming presence and much-needed leader. But the senior opted for knee surgery on the eve of Bad Loss No. 3, a 99-83 drubbing by injury depleted Pepperdine on Feb. 9, and never returned to the lineup.
Emery, Haws, Childs and defensive ace Davin Guinn battled minor injuries and illnesses as well, but it would be a stretch to say any of those led to losses in and of themselves. Eight of BYU's 12 losses were by 10 points or more.
With Davis and L.J. Rose out of the lineup, Dave Rose started three sophomores and two freshmen the bulk of the second half of the season and BYU ranked 335 out of 345 schools in the country in terms of player experience.
"Just so many untimely injuries," Dave Rose said. "You add [injuries and inexperience] together and it meant some real challenges. It a lot of ways, you have to be really proud of the guys to be able to overcome a lot of things that could have really got into this group and got their confidence down."
Euphoria, then agony, again
By far the pinnacle of the season was the 79-71 win over then-No. 1 and undefeated Gonzaga in Spokane, the most impressive true road victory in program history. But the positive vibes ended with a giant thud nine and 18 days later: blowout losses to SMC and UTA that left Rose and company searching for answers and pointing to the need for program improvement top to bottom in the offseason.
Critics often point to BYU's defensive weaknesses as the primary reason the program is unable to break through to the next level. Giving up 62 first-half points and 105 overall in the season-ender adds validity to those claims, certainly. But the squad did improve defensively in some areas. BYU finished 62nd in the country in field-goal percentage defense (41.6) and 50th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (32.4).
The problem was BYU was 249th in turnovers forced (12.2 per game) and 134th in steals (6.6 per game). The Cougars don't have the athletes to attack defensively and are susceptible to quick, penetrating guards.
Offensively, the Cougars got better in halfcourt situations (except against Saint Mary's) and got a monster year from Mika, who was tied for 14th in double-doubles with 17, first in free throws attempted (295) and second in free throws made (225) in the country through the weekend's NCAA Tournament and NIT games.
They still turned the ball over too much (13.8 per game), ranking 253rd in that important category.
The Cougars are No. 80 in KenPom.com's rankings, their lowest since Rose's first year (2005-06) and No. 65 in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).
The six players they ended the season using almost exclusively Mika, Emery, Haws, Bryant, Guinn and Childs should all return, barring something unforeseen. Dalton Nixon, Luke Worthington and Ryan Andrus are due back from missions, but all three are role players, at best.
"Different guys grew in different ways, and came up to the plate and met their challenges," Mika said. "Obviously we didn't overcome all of them. We didn't go undefeated. We didn't accomplish everything we wanted to. But we learned, and we are all going to be better from this year, and that's how we got to look at it."
Cougars' wild ride
The highs • Handing then-No. 1 Gonzaga its only loss to date; bounce-back road win at San Francisco; sophomore center Eric Mika emerges as one of the best post players in the country.
The lows • Season-ending injuries suffered by Kyle Davis, L.J. Rose and Elijah Bryant; regular-season losses to Utah Valley, San Diego and Pepperdine followed by blowout postseason losses to Saint Mary's and UT Arlington.
What's next • All five late-season starters should return, and frontcourt players Dalton Nixon, Ryan Andrus and Luke Worthington are due back from church missions; freshman guard Colby Leifson departs on a mission.