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February 28, 2011, 12:22 PM ET
BYU and the value of two additional wins

by John Gasaway

On Saturday BYU won their showdown at San Diego State, 80-67, giving the Cougars the regular-season sweep over the Aztecs. As Kevin Pelton noted in his excellent recap, the most impressive aspect of an already impressive win may have been that Dave Rose’s team prevailed despite a decidedly human-looking Jimmer Fredette (8-of-23 from the floor). Instead the best player on the court was arguably 6-5 wing Charles Abuou, who grabbed nine boards while scoring 18 points on just 11 shots. The young lad has certainly come a long way since the days when his name was spelled “Aduou” by Nike on a special Coaches vs. Cancer-themed jersey.

BYU closes the regular season with games this week at home against New Mexico and Wyoming. At 27-2 overall and 13-1 in Mountain West play, the Cougars are being talked up for a 1-seed. Certainly their in-conference performance looks worthy of that honor.

Get out of the way and let the big cats eat 
Through games of February 27, conference games only
Pace: Possessions per 40 minutes
PPP: points per possession  Opp. PPP: opponent PPP
EM: efficiency margin (PPP - Opp. PPP)

                     W-L     Pace    PPP    Opp. PPP   EM
1.  BYU             13-1     71.3    1.15     0.96   +0.19
2.  San Diego St.   12-2     64.3    1.08     0.93   +0.15
3.  UNLV            10-5     67.2    1.02     0.96   +0.06
4.  New Mexico       6-8     65.8    1.06     1.02   +0.04
5.  Colorado St.     8-6     67.9    1.01     0.99   +0.02
6.  Utah             6-8     67.1    0.97     1.03   -0.06
7.  Air Force        5-9     61.6    0.98     1.05   -0.07
8.  Wyoming         3-11     67.2    0.94     1.08   -0.14
9.  TCU             1-14     66.0    0.92     1.09   -0.17 
 

Rose’s team is outscoring the Mountain West by 0.19 points per trip, a margin that most assuredly qualifies as “dominant.” This is getting to be a habit in Provo. Last year the Cougars outscored their league by 0.22 points per possession.

In fact the similarities between BYU’s 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons are fairly uncanny. In both seasons the Cougars lost just one game in the non-conference portion of their schedule (at Utah State last year, on a quasi-neutral floor to UCLA this year). In both seasons Rose’s team arrived at the last week of January with just that one loss and ranked in or very near the top 10 nationally. And in both seasons BYU then promptly lost in Albuquerque to New Mexico. The Cougars have even stayed largely the same year-to-year in performance terms. Actually BYU might be a hair worse on D this season compared to last year (keeping in mind they were and are very good both years). They force fewer turnovers and grab fewer defensive boards. The other difference is stylistic. This year’s Jimmer-powered Cougars shoot more threes.

So how come this team got just a 7-seed last year? In their last game before Selection Sunday BYU lost in the semis of the Mountain West tournament, but surely there’s no shame in losing to UNLV in Vegas. And while it’s true that the MWC’s probably a smidge tougher top-to-bottom this year than it was last year, I think we need to look elsewhere to explain this vast disparity in year-to-year perception. 

First, BYU didn’t win their conference last year. New Mexico did. The Lobos swept the season series from the Cougs, won a series of nail-biters against the rest of the Mountain West, and captured the league title outright at 14-2. BYU beat the rest of the non-Lobo conference with much greater decisiveness than did Steve Alford’s team, looked great in Tuesday Truths, and came in second in real life at 13-3.

Second, this year the Cougars were given the gift of an esteemed rival: San Diego State. The Aztecs were undefeated until January 26, when they lost at BYU. Before Rose’s team could record two huge wins against San Diego State, the Aztecs first had to perform at a level that earned respect nationally. My working assumption is that very good teams who are perceived as lacking a worthy in-conference foe run the risk of being underrated. Look at Duke last year. Cougar fans should be very thankful that SDSU exists.

It looks probable that BYU will finish the regular season having won two games that they lost last year: at UNLV, and at home against New Mexico. Again, the Lobos will have something to say about the latter contest — it’ll take place Wednesday night. Assuming the Cougars prevail, the contrast between then and now will be stark. What a difference two wins can make.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here. Book: now available on Amazon.

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