One of BYUâs issues made worse during its years in the West Coast Conference, but present so often for so long, has been a low ceiling, a tendency for basketball to be good, almost always good, but rarely good enough to make any sort of notable dent against top-tier competition.
Upsets were pulled off now and again, but even in those good years a pall of doomed inevitability hung over Cougar hoops, a bit of reality causing anyone in and around the program, at least in moments of honesty, to know deep down that nothing grand would come of bits and pieces of success during stretches of long seasons.
A few exceptions stand out.
Jimmer Fredetteâs senior year in 2011, when BYU had a stellar team that made it to the Sweet 16, but was bumped off an even more promising track by whomever in the Honor Code Office decided big man Brandon Davies was too big of a sinner to be allowed to play in the final few games that year.
Mark Popeâs team in 2020, the one that knocked off second-ranked Gonzaga in one of the most memorable games ever in the Marriott Center, was a soaring scoring group, with three seniors who could light up a gym, individually or together, on any given night â Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws, and Jake Toolson. The Cougars had other guys on that team, too, and it would have made a strong run in the NCAA Tournament had it not been defeated by a formidable foe that shut down all of college basketball and a whole lot of the country and the world â COVID.
Then there was the Danny Ainge-led team back in 1981, the one that made it to the Elite Eight.
There were a couple of others in the mix, and if you want to lean all the way back to the NIT championship teams, back when that tournament actually meant something significant, you can. In between, though, there were a whole lot of good-for-who-itâs-for teams that quite understandably couldnât be better than they were. They failed to capture the imagination.
Whoa. Hold on. Thatâs changing now.
The Cougarsâ win on Tuesday night over Kansas at Phog Allen, a historical pinnacle in a place few visitors climb and conquer, registered in a huge way, sending out a signal that basketball at BYU, not just in a particular quirky moment, but for real is extending its reach.
Already, BYU had surprised this season, its inaugural run through college basketballâs best conference. As I wrote in a recent column, the Cougars had been expected to bump and skid over their first year in the Big 12. At that writing, they were 7-6 in the league, not an exceptional mark, but far superior to what anyone thought they could achieve so soon.
They subsequently dropped a roadie at K-State, and that loss disappointed those who had come around to the surprise Popeâs outfit was conjuring. But when the Cougars fired back for a win in one of college basketballâs most storied arenas, a place where the Jayhawks had a 19-game win streak, a place where they lose about as often as the Utah Legislature passes progressive laws, a place where Bill Selfâs teams had established a probability of winning at 95 percent, it demonstrated that a team capable of doing that is also doing what few BYU teams have done in the past â lifting the ceiling and raising the roof.
Dallin Hall took over that game, going for 13 second-half points, hitting clutch difference-making shots. But he had help from others.
Pope called the win âspecial.â
Self called the loss âpitiful.â
But he added that, âBYU was better than us tonight.â
As mentioned, being better than Kansas on any night is one thing, being that at Allen Fieldhouse is another.
What does it mean?
Overall, the Cougars are 20-8, 8-7 in the Big 12, so it doesnât mean BYU has a great team. What it means is that the opportunity to play in that league has handed it the chance to rise up not just on difficult occasions, but to be what it appears to be, to be battle-tested, to be real. What it means is that thereâs nothing faux about an 8-7 record in the Big 12, that a mark like that not only prepares BYU for at least a shot at something more, it blows past a shiny record in a lesser conference, one that eventually will be revealed as something south of what it seems.
Thatâs a healthy thing for any aspiring basketball program. BYUâs recruiting limitations are and always will be a challenge, but not an impossible one to get around. Watch as Pope finds surprising talent in surprising places â he already has â luring that talent in by way of the opportunity spoken of, afforded by way of playing You-Know-Where.
Under these circumstances, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe for the first time ever, BYU, even when it gets tripped up here and there, can build to consistently be what itâs rarely been in the past. Not just good, but real good.
No, no, really.