Basketball season is nearly here.
On paper the BYU men’s basketball team is as talented as it has ever been despite the task of replacing its all-time leading scorer, Tyler Haws. The team went 4-0 during its offseason Spain trip, winning by an average of 24.5 points per game.
Head coach Dave Rose, pleased with the trip, said it gave him a great opportunity to evaluate the talent on the team.
“I’m really excited about the team this year,” Rose said at media day. “We have a good feel for the group, what we need to do and how we’re going to do it.”
The extra time with the team gave Rose a feel for the team’s new players. The 2015-16 season will feature six new players to the program as well as the addition of four players who are just becoming eligible to play.
Former guards Cooper Ainge and Corey Calvert rejoin the team after returning from their LDS missions. Ainge redshirted for the 2012-2013 season and sophomore guard Corey Calvert only played sparingly that year. Junior forward Kyle Davis and sophomore forward Jamal Aytes are now eligible to play in games after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer regulations. The addition of five incoming freshman makes nine players who are relatively new to the BYU system.
Despite the potential lack of experience — only four of the 16 players on the roster are upperclassmen — Rose says he isn’t worried.
“I’m really excited about the depth of this team,” Rose said. “Hopefully that’s how it plays out. I love competition. I think competition is the key to success. If our team can compete with each other, I think we’ll find a real solid group that can compete for championships.”
Plenty of question marks exist on the defensive end for the Cougars, who ranked 319th nationally in points allowed per game (73.2) and averaged only three blocked shots per game.
To address their defensive struggles, the team hired former Lone Peak head coach Quincy Lewis. He and assistant coach Tim LaComb will handle the team’s defensive game preparations. Senior captain Kyle Collinsworth expects the change to yield an immediate impact.
“(Coach Lewis) is a big defensive presence,” Collinsworth said at media day. “Every coach is different. They bring their different flare to the game and a different mindset. It’s been good. We kind of ran this defense when I was in high school, so I feel like it fits our personnel a little better.”
Senior forward Nate Austin played for Lewis in high school, and says his addition has changed the culture in the locker room.
“I think the biggest difference defensively is bringing in Quincy Lewis,” Austin said at media day. “At Lone Peak, his teams always played defense. If you wanted to play there, you had to play defense. His philosophy of not letting guys get to the hoop and making them hit difficult outside shots will be key to our success this year.”
Even with potential improvements — offensively or defensively — winning the West Coast Conference won’t be an easy task for the Cougars.
“It is a really competitive league,” Rose said. “We won four out of five championships in the Mountain West, and we’re 0-4 in this league. So the challenge is obviously really good. We’re looking forward to trying to break through here.”
Rose is also concerned with consistency. He wants his team to break through and become a threat to win every year. He believes that 2015 could be the start to that process.
“It was really important to me when I got this job 10 years ago that we didn’t just have good teams, but that we had a great program and could be consistent year after year,” Rose said.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs have won the WCC tournament three years straight. In each of the last two years they’ve defeated BYU in the championship game by an average of 13.5 points.
Head coach Mark Few has a career record of 438 – 103 at Gonzaga and a 33 – 4 record in the WCC tournament. But he will need to replace a large portion of his backcourt in 2015.
Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Byron Wesley all graduated. Seniors Eric McClellan and Kyle Draginis will have to fill the open roles, with sophomore Silas Melson and redshirt freshman Josh Perkins also looking to contribute. McClellan and Draginis combined to average just 6 ppg last season. Melson is an electrifying athlete, but averaged just 3.2 ppg in limited action last season.
However, inexperience does not bleed over to the Gonzaga frontcourt.
Senior forward Kyle Wiltjer was arguably the best player in the WCC last season. He averaged 16.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 1.9 apg and led the Bulldogs to a school-record 35 wins.
Senior Przemek Karnowski and sophomore Domantas Sabonis combined to average 20.6 ppg, 12.9 rpg and 1.3 blocks per game last season. Their post presence and defensive prowess should once again help Gonzaga to be one of the top teams in the country.
Another threat to the Cougars in 2015 will be Pepperdine.
The Waves won 18 games last season, including a 67-61 victory over the Cougars in the Marriott Center and an 80-74 victory over the Cougars at home.
Head coach Marty Wilson has improved Pepperdine’s win total in each of his last four seasons as head coach. This year he welcomes back all five of his starters from last year’s squad. All-WCC senior forward Stacy Davis averaged 15.7 ppg and 7.8 rpg in 2014-15, and some experts believe he will be the WCC Player of the Year.
The Cougars will start their 2015 regular season on Nov. 13 against former assistant coach Mark Pope and UVU. They’ll participate in ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon on Nov. 16.