COUGAR TRACKS

What We Learned About BYU Basketball During Nonconference Play

Jan 2, 2024, 12:09 PM

PROVO, Utah – BYU basketball exits nonconference action with a 12-1 record and a No. 12 ranking in the AP Top 25 poll. Just as we all expected, right?

It’s been quite the ride for BYU during the nonconference portion of the season. Coming into the year, expectations were as low as BYU basketball had experienced since the first year of the Dave Rose era in 2005, when they were picked to finish last in the Mountain West. That team cruised past those expectations, reaching a postseason bid in the NIT.

The NIT for Mark Pope’s team would have been viewed as a great landing spot for this year’s team coming into the season. Expectations have changed and a return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2021 is what BYU should be aiming for after a 12-1 start.

To reach March Madness, they must navigate their inaugural Big 12 schedule.

The Big 12 has been rated the No. 1 league in eight of the last ten seasons in college basketball on KenPom. Entering league play this year, it’s far and away the number one conference again, according to the predictive metrics.

To reset at the midway point of the year, here is what we learned about BYU basketball during the nonconference season.

BYU basketball got what they wanted out of the schedule

No one is going to mistake BYU’s nonconference schedule for a gauntlet. KenPom has BYU’s strength of schedule in nonconference at 300 out of 362 teams.

But that’s how many teams in the Big 12 line up their nonconference slates. Six teams in the league had weaker out-of-league schedules than BYU.

What was impressive about how BYU navigated its nonconference schedule was its dominance. They enter league play with the nation’s No. 1 scoring margin at 28.8 points per game. Their only loss was by four to the nation’s tallest team, Utah, at the Huntsman Center.

The schedule provided four Top-100 matchups (SDSU, NC State, Evansville, Utah), with BYU posting a 3-1 record in those games.

BYU will lean into its identity of three-point shooting

Since BYU basketball was invited to join the Big 12 in September 2021, Mark Pope knew his program had to do something different to stand out in the nation’s best league. Three-point shooting was the ticket.

Mark Pope’s program was the nation’s number-one three-point shooting team in the 2019-20 campaign. They never quite reached those heights the past three seasons, but they are in the mix to be the top team from beyond the arc this year.

BYU is the nation’s number-one team in three-pointers made per game at 12.8. They are second nationally in attempts at 33.8.

Don’t expect the number of attempts to dip anytime soon, as BYU’s offensive coordinator Cody Fueger expects this team to fire off at least 30 threes per game. It’s part of BYU’s DNA this season and they are leaning into it.

Depth in the frontcourt is trending up

The hamstring injury to Fousseyni Traore on Black Friday against NC State looked to be a dagger to BYU’s fast start to the season. BYU’s setback at Utah magnified the importance of Traore to this team.

However, in recent weeks, BYU has received valuable contributions from Aly Khalifa and Atiki Ally Atiki, leaving the Cougars feeling good about their depth at the five.

Khalifa is the nation’s leader in assist/turnover ratio at an eye-popping 14-to-1 ratio, and that’s while he is still recovering from a preseason knee injury he suffered. The former Charlotte big man is finding his groove on offense for BYU.

Atiki Ally Atiki is beginning to realize the potential BYU coaches always envisioned he had when he signed with the Cougars out of a prep academy in Canada. The 6-foot-10, 220-pound big man played only 28 games of organized basketball when he arrived at BYU. It’s taken a while for him to find his role in the program, but it’s beginning to click now.

During the final two nonconference games, “Triple A” put together back-to-back double-figure scoring performances for the first time in his BYU career.

Not to be forgotten, starting power forward Noah Waterman has taken significant steps forward as a rebounder for BYU.

It wasn’t ideal to lose Traore, but it might have been a blessing for BYU to tap into its depth at the position in the long run.

Jaxson Robinson has made the biggest jump

Teams that compete in the upper half of the Big 12 have a player or two with an NBA future. Jaxson Robinson appears to be that guy for BYU. Robinson, who has embraced a unique role coming off the bench, is garnering buzz as a second-round NBA draft pick next June.

The 6-foot-7, 190-pound forward has NBA measurables and a quick release. Coming out of nonconference play, Robinson is sixth in the Big 12 in scoring at 16.5 points per game and he’s number one in the Big 12 in three-point field goal percentage at 43.4%.

He’s taken a significant jump in his development, but BYU coach Mark Pope would point to one of the biggest breakthroughs for Robinson being how he connected with his teammates during the offseason.

Trevin Knell is an X-Factor for BYU

The significance of Trevin Knell playing for BYU was undersold last season. Knell was out the entire year due to a shoulder injury. When he returned to full strength this year, Knell embodied much of the outlook for BYU entering the year.

Nobody was sure what to expect, but he exceeded everyone’s expectations through nonconference.

On offense, Knell has recaptured the pure shooting form that made him a valuable recruiting flip from Cal as a recruit. He’s fifth in the Big 12 in three-point fields made per game at 2.3. But the defensive end of the floor from Knell has Mark Pope excited.

Pope highlighted Knell was one of the top defensive performers in the win over Wyoming to close out nonconference.

Chemistry is strong on this team

Mark Pope took a risk by incorporating a “long game” approach to preparing for the Big 12. There’s no long game in today’s college basketball world, as transfers are happening everywhere you look. Plus, coaching hot seats can ratchet up when there’s a dip in performance.

Through the 13 nonconference games, Pope’s long game view and focus on roster retention is paying off. While most teams in college basketball bring numerous transfers together to find chemistry, BYU is a close-knit team with lots of experience together through last season and their summer tour to Croatia and Italy in the summer.

During the first two years of the Mark Pope era, there was a lot of talk about “BLRA.” The acronym stands for “Best Locker Room in America.” That went away the past two years but appears to be back this year. Everyone has embraced their role as they now turn their attention to the gauntlet that is the nation’s toughest conference.

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU in the Big 12 Conference on X and Threads: @Mitch_Harper.

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What We Learned About BYU Basketball During Nonconference Play