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Provo • Dave Rose signed a glitzy new five-year contract in April no doubt making him the most well-paid basketball coach in BYU history his reward for taking the Cougars to five straight NCAA Tournaments and their first Sweet 16 since 1981.
That's appropriate, considering Rose has his work cut out for him this season as the Cougars try to replace their best backcourt ever consensus national player of the year Jimmer Fredette and ball-hawking Jackson Emery. This might be Rose's most difficult coaching job yet, although he said "the challenge is still the same" as the Cougars started official practices Friday in preparation for perhaps the most strenuous season-opener in his tenure: Nov. 11 at Utah State.
"Well, I don't think this is much different at all," the coach said. "We are going to try to win a league championship that is … not-so-familiar, with the move to the West Coast Conference, so that is a little different. But as far as trying to put the next team out on the floor and be competitive and compete for championships, that feels pretty similar."
The overriding question, of course, is whether Rose and the Cougars can keep the most successful run in program history going in their new league. Along with five straight trips to the NCAA tourney, they've won at least 25 games and been ranked in the top 25 five for five straight seasons.
Simply, BYU is as hot as it has ever been on the hardwood.
"Jimmer and Jackson are gone, and don't forget Logan [Magnusson] was a great leader, too," said Brock Zylstra, a seldom-used substitute last year who emerged during the Cougars' summer trip to Greece as a bona fide offensive threat. "But this program is on solid ground. We will be fine. We will be good. We have a chance to be amazing."
History has shown Rose recovers well from losses of key players. After losing MWC player of the year Keena Young in 2007, the Cougars won 27 games in 2007-08. After Lee Cummard graduated in 2009, the Cougars won 30 games in 2009-10 for the first time ever, then followed that up last year with the Sweet 16 run, a run that quite possibly would have been deeper if center Brandon Davies, arguably the team's second-best player last year, had not gotten suspended for an honor-code violation two games before postseason play began.
The 6-foot-9 Davies is back for his junior season and looking like a potential all-conference center, but there are big question marks almost everywhere else for Rose.
Chiefly, BYU needs a point guard at least until UCLA transfer Matt Carlino becomes eligible in time for the Baylor game Dec. 17 in Provo. The Cougars say Carlino is capable, but even he acknowledges he's no Fredette.
The 6-foot-6 Zylstra played the point in Greece for the first time since summer AAU ball five years ago; junior Nick Martineau and redshirt freshman Anson Winder will get tryouts in the 10 games before Carlino plays.
"It is hard to talk about Matt when you have so many games without him before he gets started," Rose said. "But he will be a big part of this team."
Emery left with the most steals of any player in school history, but coaches say 6-5 Charles Abouo is still the team's best on-ball defender. Abouo has improved his outside shooting as well, and will be counted on to score more in Fredette's absence as BYU's offense changes and goes through Davies more than before.
"I think that when we play through our post, we have a couple of guys that demand a second defender in the post, and we can get a lot of open shots, like we did with Keena Young and Trent Plaisted, and the key is to find that one guy who takes a second defender, or maybe a half of a second defender," Rose said. "Then you can find opportunities for other guys."
Speaking of which, Rose said the inside trio of Davies, Abouo and Noah Hartsock will be the strength of the team, but a key is the healthy return of 6-9 Chris Collinsworth, a rebounding ace who didn't play on the Greece trip while still recovering from knee surgery that cut short his 2010-11 season.
"I think we will rely on our frontline, especially early in the year," Rose said.
Five questions facing BYU basketball
• Who will play point guard?
• Who will make shots in Jimmer Fredette's absence?
• Who steps into Jackson Emery's shoes as the defensive stopper?
• Will the Cougars flourish and stay relevant in the West Coast Conference?
• Does seldom-used sub Brock Zylstra's Greece performance have staying power?