by Tai Justice
BYU’s season came to an end last Saturday night at the hands of the UCLA Bruins. The Cougars fell 73-62 in the first round the NCAA Tournament. The game couldn’t have started worse for BYU. At the 15-minute mark in the first half, they trailed by 7 and had only made one shot from the field. The moment looked too big for a lot of guys on the team, at least at first. BYU seemed to settle in a little bit as the game went on, cutting the Bruins lead down to two multiple times. They demonstrated well-played defense and senior guard Alex Barcello carried most of the offensive load. It wasn’t enough to stop the Bruins as they shot very well from the field all night.
Johnny Juzang won’t be a name BYU fans forget anytime soon as he torched the Cougars for 27 points, hitting jumper after jumper on the BYU defense. The way BYU guarded Juzang has been the hot topic since the game ended. The job Mark Pope has done in such a short time already at BYU is absolutely incredible, but many didn’t agree with never trapping Juzang. He was walking into open jumper after open jumper. Trap defense is risky as someone is left open. In this case, it would’ve been my move just because no one on UCLA except Juzang and Jules Bernard was hurting BYU.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but when Juzang is just walking into open jump-shots off just one ball-screen, it’s an adjustment that should have been made. Either that, or BYU should simply get out of the drop pick-n-roll coverage and go over the screen. It would be wrong to not give Juzang credit though. He was hitting some tough shots at times and completely carried his team into the next round. UCLA also advanced passed the 14 seed Abilene Christian behind Johnny Juzang again as he scored 17 more points. UCLA plays Alabama Sunday night with a spot in the Elite 8 on the line. This loss stings even more knowing BYU would be a big favorite in the Round of 32 against Abilene Christian.
The Cougars season unfortunately ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite this fact, was the season a success? Yes. It’s usually not good to be a big moral victory person, but when taking a step back and look at what the expectations for BYU was before the season were, this season is a major success. Look at the number of players the Cougars lost from that awesome 2020 team that had its season cut short because of the pandemic.
Getting back to the tournament as a six seed is an amazing accomplishment by Mark Pope and the team. The future is bright for the program with him running the show. The expectations heading into the season for BYU was a fringe tournament team. They were thought of as a double-digit or high single digit seed, or an even an NIT appearance. For some more context, losing star players such as Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws, it was never going to be easy sledding heading into this season.
The future is bright for BYU with young players like Caleb Lohner, Spencer Johnson, Gideon George and Trevin Knell all set to return next season. Expect BYU to bring in a few transfers as well as that is the Pope way. He will most likely add another contributor to next season’s team via the transfer portal where he has already shown a great ability to land big name players. Lohner had a great freshman season almost any way you want to look at it, but I could see him making the so called “leap” as a player if he can get in the gym and become a guy who uses his athleticism to create his own shot off the dribble. That is something that BYU really struggled with at times this year and especially against UCLA. The sky is the limit for Lohner as he already has a lot of defensive skills and a knack for rebounding. If his offensive game takes a step forward, look out.
Multiple guys who can create their own shot off the dribble is something BYU needs to add. Throughout the season there were beautiful sets and plays drawn up by Pope and at times it looked awesome. When they faced a defense that could take away their passing lanes and all those cuts and off-ball movement that makes Pope’s system so great, BYU’s offense clogged up. That’s what happened last Saturday. Kenpom had BYU as the 89th best team in the nation before the season and they ended up as a six seed. Despite the disappointing end, this was a successful building block season for Mark Pope and the Cougars. It will be exciting to see how BYU continues to build upon this.
Featured image courtesy Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports