COMMENTARY — BYU’s loss last Saturday to Portland hurt. Of that, there is no doubt.
Instead of being tied with St. Mary’s and Gonzaga atop the West Coast Conference standings, the Cougars are a game behind those two teams.
But there is a silver lining behind that dark cloud. BYU split with the two league leaders and will host both of them in February. In fact, if the Cougars can pull off a sweep this weekend (at Loyola Marymount tonight at 9 p.m. and at Pepperdine Saturday at 6 p.m.), they’ll be sitting at 6-2 with 10 conference games left.
And the best part of that: Seven of those 10 remaining games will be in the comfy confines of the Marriott Center.
The home-heavy schedule down the stretch bodes well for BYU, but the Cougars still can be described by that one word no team wants as its label: inconsistent.
Against Santa Clara and San Francisco at home two weeks ago, the Cougars made 28 3-pointers, nailing 28 of 62 deep balls — a very good 45 percent total. Then last week, on the road at Gonzaga and Portland, BYU made just 9 of 39 treys — an anemic 23 percent.
It’s easy to blame location. “Hey, they’re on the road, they’re not supposed to shoot it well.” I hate that excuse. Last time I checked, the hoop was the same height and circumference in Spokane, Portland and Provo. Barometric pressure? Altitude? Wind chill? Got any other excuses?
I heard a commentator say the other day that having a reason for doing something does not excuse a behavior.
The two inconsistent shooters this past weekend were freshmen Nick Emery and Zac Seljaas. The pair combined to go 1 for 8 vs. Gonzaga and 2 for 9 vs. Portland from beyond the arc — a total of 3 for 17 (18 percent) on the road swing with the long ball. Not good.
Again, the reason is that these guys are freshmen who are experiencing the rigors of the road in college basketball for the first time. But that’s no excuse.
I have no doubt that Emery and Zeljaas are going to have impressive legacies at BYU. If they continue the projected upward arc that all freshmen have, the legacy of those two young men could be epic at BYU, especially Emery. He’s already averaging 14.5 points and, like his older brother Jackson, has shown a real knack for stealing the basketball.
Oh, and for the record, Emery’s freshman numbers far outpace BYU’s most famous basketball alumnus, Jimmer Fredette. While playing 29 minutes a game, Emery scores about a point every two minutes. Fredette averaged 7.0 points a game while playing 19 minutes a contest, an average of about a point every 2.8 minutes.
Fredette made 33.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, while Emery hits on 37.5 percent of his shots from deep.
But perhaps the biggest difference between the two guys is this: Fredette was a role player on a team that had established stars in Lee Cummard, Trent Plaisted and Jonathan Tavernari. Emery, on the other hand, is a starter who is counted on to play intense defense and stretch defenses with his deep-ball prowess.
But all that aside, it’s still frustrating to see these guys fling up the same shots from the same distance and have them clang off the various rims around the WCC.
That late trey by Emery that helped the Cougars overcome Gonzaga was more a relief than anything else. Up to that point, he was scoreless and it ended up being his only basket of the game. Sure, it was a raise-out-of-your-seat, game-changing moment. But it may not have necessary if any of his other shots in the game had gone in.
Nick Emery will be star at BYU, perhaps even challenging Fredette’s all-time Cougar scoring record someday. But for now, he provides as many valleys as he does peaks.
An unsung hero on this BYU team is Nate Austin, the fifth-year senior who has been in the program since 2011. Austin, who played in 10 games last season before a devastating hamstring tear in December of 2014, received a medical redshirt for last season. He’s not a scorer (2.4 ppg) and doesn’t pass the ball much, averaging less than one assist a game for his career.
But Austin rebounds the heck out of the basketball, especially on the offensive end, where leads the all-time BYU list with 269 offensive boards. And he plays defense, recording his 81st and 82nd career blocked shots against Gonzaga.
The last one may be the career-defining moment for the Lone Peak grad. Austin swooped over — a la Andrei Kirilenko — and stuffed Kyle Wiltjer as he attempted the potential game-winning shot in Spokane last Thursday.
Austin will never hold the place in BYU fans’ hearts like Jimmer or Danny Ainge, but he should. Here’s a kid — well, a man, he’s in his mid-20s now — who has given a huge chunk of his life to BYU basketball. Though he couldn’t stuff a stat sheet like Fredette or Haws, Austin bleeds blue as much as anyone.
Hats off to Nate Austin.
Blue Blood is a sports column written by Andy Griffin. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. George News.
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