‘Sky is the limit’ for surging BYU men’s basketball team

BYU men’s basketball forward Matt Haarms is looking every bit the 7-foot-3 paint presence BYU signed up for after a slow start to the season due to an ankle injury. Haarms put up an all-time best performance against Portland on Jan. 21, stretching the Cougars’ ceiling beyond initial expectations.

Head coach Mark Pope electrified the program with a Top 25-ranked team last year in his debut season, and after losing a trio of all-conference seniors he went out and got the top transfer player available in Haarms.

“He’s protecting the rim like the stud we thought he was going to be when we recruited him here (from Purdue),” assistant coach Chris Burgess said following a win over Pepperdine on Jan. 23.

The Cougars are 13-3 on the season and 4-1 in West Coast Conference play, including a 28-point win over Portland in which Haarms put up a BYU career-high 23 points on perfect 9-for-9 shooting, the first Cougar to do so since Trent Plaisted in 2008.

He achieved the highest score this season in the Daily Universe’s Player of the Game ratings with a 46.67 against Portland (courtesy of BYU’s Data Science in Sports course) and looked comfortable and confident controlling the area around the rim all night.

He followed up his career scoring night with a four-block performance against Pepperdine just two nights later, showing his impact on both offense and defense for BYU. As Haarms and others discover and excel at their roles, the Cougars are starting to get a vision for what the team can become this season.

“We have a high ceiling but we know we have a lot to learn,” team captain Alex Barcello said. “We need to continue to get better every day like coach preaches. I think the sky is the limit for us.”

The BYU bench celebrates a basket against Portland on Jan. 21. Barcello (13) and Haarms (3) are the team’s leaders on both ends of the floor as an inside-outside presence for the Cougars. (Hannah Miner)

Barcello has been the one sure thing for the Cougars all season, as their leading scorer, point guard and vocal leader, but one player can only take a team so far. Early on in the season, the Cougars went as Barcello went: if he was on fire the team was on fire, but if his shot was struggling, the team struggled as well.

Now with Haarms looking more and more healthy and integrated into Pope’s system, the Cougars are clicking. Barcello is still lighting it up from deep, with a 51.6% 3-point shooting clip, and making plays when it counts, but the threat of Haarms in the paint on both ends of the floor elevates BYU’s floor and ceiling on a nightly basis.

“One of our tag lines is that we ‘turn frustration into fight,'” Haarms said, both of his own struggles early in the season and difficult stretches in games for BYU. “It means there are so many opportunities for us to do better.”

The Cougars had two losses in the opening two weeks of the season, but have since won eight of their last nine games, going back to Dec. 12. The three teams that BYU lost to are a combined 40-4 so far this season, giving the Cougars no bad losses on their resume.

“We credit the USC loss as defining our season,” Haarms said of the Cougars’ first loss early in the season. “We’re a good team but don’t go ranking us AP No. 1 just yet.”

Matt Haarms, left, and other Cougars celebrate the win over Pepperdine on Jan. 23. Haarms says the team has learned from early losses and is finding its groove now. (Addie Blacker)

BYU has not been featured in the AP Top 25 yet this season, but it will be hard to keep ignoring the Cougars if the current win streak and solid defensive play continue. After holding Pepperdine to just 54 points on Jan. 23, several players and coaches spoke to the team-first, defensive-minded identity this year’s squad has taken on.

“These guys are buying into the tough, grind-it-out type of games, and they’re resulting in wins,” Burgess said. “That’s what makes (the) team special, is they have zero agenda. And that comes from Coach Pope.”

The phrase, “best locker room in America,” was then quoted by Burgess, reiterating the team slogan that Pope has instilled since his arrival in Provo. The phrase is one of many Pope-isms that reinforce the hardworking, selfless brand of basketball he wants BYU to play.

“What we’re trying to do with this team is really complicated, but if it works, this could be a really fun team,” Pope said. “I’m a believer.”

The Cougars will certainly have many more believers joining the fold in the coming weeks and months, as renowned college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy currently ranks BYU in the Top 50 in the nation and TeamRankings.com gives the Cougars a 97% chance to make the NCAA Tournament. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi currently projects BYU to be a nine seed come March and the 33rd-ranked team overall in the tournament.

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