Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Man For All (Basketball) Seasons

This post was meant to be written shortly after the BYU-UNLV game a couple of weeks ago. As this blog isn't something I do for a living, a lot of things managed to get in the way of writing the last two weeks. In the meantime, what was perhaps not completely obvious has become more readily evident. That said. . .

I was happy to have Steve Cleveland at BYU. I will be forever grateful to him for resurrecting the BYU basketball program. The game that perhaps stands out as an example of the best of Cleveland's coaching ability was the 2000 conference tournament victory ending a 12-game losing streak against the University of Utah. Cleveland and his assistants went over several scenarios into the early hours of the morning on how to beat Utah, and nothing clicked. Finally Cleveland determined that Eric Nielsen, a steady but generally unspectacular player, could beat Utah's best player, Hanno Mottola, off the dribble. Three new plays were drawn up for Nielsen. He finished with a career-high 17 points, and the rivalry was back.

But although the team got back to a respectable level, there was always something lacking. Perhaps the best team under Cleveland was the 2003-2004 version with a future NBA first-round pick in Rafael Araujo. That team beat Oklahoma State (which later made it to the Final Four) and had then-USC coach Henry Bibby saying that BYU was one of the top three teams in the West, along with Stanford and Arizona. As much talent as that team had, however, they were inconsistent. They also continued a trend under Cleveland of losing their only game in the NCAA tournament. You could blame the latter two losses on getting matched against teams that were used to tournament-level play (UConn and Syracuse), and maybe that was just bad luck. Nevertheless, BYU's loss to Syracuse came despite many thinking that the Cougars would take the Orangemen out. That Cougar team was the aforementioned group that beat a future Final Four entrant.

Last year saw BYU take a major step backward, and, after leaving for Fresno State, Cleveland said he had accomplished everything that he felt he could at BYU. Enter Dave Rose. What I see with his team this year is passion and toughness. After a loss at Utah that seemingly stopped BYU's momentum, the Cougars jumped all over UNLV at home. Then the Rebels fought their way back and took the lead. I suspected that, as in years past, BYU would not be able to pull this one out--they wouldn't be mentally tough enough. To my very pleasant surprise, BYU turned the tables on UNLV and were the tougher team down the stretch. Since that game, they've won twice on the road and beat San Diego State at home, pulling away at the end by making all eight of their free throws in the last 53 seconds.

As most know, Dave Rose played for the "Phi Slamma Jamma" Houston Cougars team with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. As talented as that team was, they lost in the championship to North Carolina State, a team that kept winning close games. Rose has taken that lesson learned and applied it to his philosophy of coaching. He says that he won't be the one to tell his team they can't win. That right there, I believe, is the difference between Dave Rose and Steve Cleveland. Steve Cleveland felt he had done all he could at BYU. He didn't feel he could do any better with the talent pool he could get there. Dave Rose doesn't feel that way. He believes the "better" team doesn't always win, and that, even if his team isn't "better", what's to stop them from playing better than the other team in any given situation? That succinctly illustrates why he is likely the right man to coach BYU for a long time to come.

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