Provo • The BYU men’s basketball team pulverized the Ottawa Spirit from Arizona, 106-69, in its final exhibition game of the season. It was a game where the public got to see the Cougars for the first time. The only other exhibition was against Stanford, which was played behind closed doors.
The game does not count in the standings for the Cougars, and it’s still too early in the season to ascertain exactly what this team will be. But after a somewhat uneven showcase in its Blue-White game last week, BYU showed signs of some signs of promise, and also some intriguing early coaching choices.
Here are four observations from Wednesday’s win.
1. Spencer Johnson’s first career BYU start
Johnson was far and away BYU’s best player against the Spirit. He scored a game-high 16 points and added six steals while shooting 6 of 9 from the field and 3 of 4 from the 3-point line.
Johnson took the postgame podium and took questions from media, receiving praise from coach Mark Pope, who sat to his right. The junior said that while it only matters who finishes the game, getting his first start in a Cougars uniform meant a lot to him.
“I’ve worked really hard,” Johnson said. “It just felt so good to hear my name being called and then to step out there and actually play really well.”
Pope said he did not yet know if he will start the same lineup in Monday’s home opener against Idaho State. He then used the question to gush even more about Johnson’s play.
“One of the beautiful things for Spence is that you talk about a dude who is primed and ready to step into a starting role,” Pope said. “It’s a gift as a coach to have a player that is — of course we all care about starting or not starting. But it’s not going to affect the way he plays. He’s been a gift for us for two years and he was incredible tonight.”
2. Starting lineup vs. bench
BYU started the game with Rudi Williams, Jaxson Robinson, Johnson, Gideon George and Fousseyni Traore. It’s a lineup of five players that combines plenty of game experience with chemistry from last year’s team.
Aside from Johnson, Williams showed out. The senior transfer had 15 points and six assists. George shot poorly, but filled the stat sheet with eight points, six rebounds and five assists.
It would make sense for Pope to continue with that starting five considering the experience on it. What was interesting to see was who he chose as his backup lineup.
Pope went 10 deep against Ottawa, with the five players off the bench being Noah Waterman, Atiki Ally Atiki, Trey Stewart, Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders. Hall and Atiki combined for 24 points on 11-of-15 shooting.
Of those five players, two are return missionaries (Hall and Saunders), one is a transfer (Waterman), one barely played last year (Stewart) and the last was a bright spot in an increased role last year (Atiki). There are some questions marks right now for that group because they are mostly unproven.
But, Pope does have some hopes for the five players he featured off the bench for most of the night, even though he did say he would likely tinker with the rotation all season.
“I would love for the second five to be just a massive burst of energy coming into the game, a massive burst of ball movement, and a massive burst of toughness and communication,” Pope said. “That’s where that group can be really, really special.”
3. Too many turnovers
The Cougars committed 19 turnovers Wednesday night. The win didn’t count in the standings, sure, but that number is far too many for a team that doesn’t have much margin for error if it wants to win a lot of games in the West Coast Conference this season.
Rudi Williams got his pocket picked several times while bringing the ball up on offense. Other times, BYU players made lazy or ill-advised passes that led directly to a turnover.
Pope, though, said at least half of BYU’s giveaways came in sequences that represented what they’re learning as a team.
“The one thing about the turnovers that I was OK with was that a lot of those turnovers came with us trying to do what we’re trying to learn how to do,” Pope said. “We’re in a massive growth place right now. … I’m going really be super patient.”
4. ‘Reproduceable’ defense
A big theme for BYU this season has been and will be defense. Players and coaches will take every opportunity to use the term “disruptive” when talking about it.
After Wednesday’s game, another term came out: DIM, which stands for Defensive Impact Metrics.
The Cougars are tracking deflections, steals, charges taken and blocks. Johnson said playing disruptive defense and tracking those metrics were important against Ottawa and will be important moving forward.
“It’s something we’ve talked about as something that’s reproduceable,” Johnson said. “You can work hard to earn shots for your teammates. But some nights shots go in, some nights shots don’t go in. But something that you can do every day is DIM.”
Pope said the team will have a more specific goal for DIM “probably 10 games into the season.”
5. Much better shooting
It started with Johnson making his first two 3-pointers from opposite corners early in the game. Those shots portended good things from the entire Cougars team, which showcased its outside shooting potential in an important way.
BYU shot 15 of 31 from the 3-point line — that’s 48.4%. In the team’s blue-white game last week, it combined to shoot 14 of 53 from that distance.
Shooting is an aspect of the team’s game that it hopes was improved by bringing in transfers Williams, Robinson and Waterman. It’s also something the team feels can be a calling card this season.