Defending the perimeter

Defense, as they say, wins championships. Despite a number of young players, and changing lineups due to injuries and eligibility issues, BYU has still been able to score pretty consistently in the post-Jimmer Fredette era. But one key focus recently for the Cougars has been perimeter defense, a weakness in most of their losses.

As of this week, the Cougars are 15th in the country in points per game (79.9) and 16th in field goal percentage (48.8). After losing the nation's leading scorer and adding a bunch of freshmen, that's not a bad feat for BYU.

Defensively, the numbers aren't as good.

"We tend to not have as much of a problem scoring as we do stopping teams right now, and that's something we need to do is get some stops consecutively," said Charles Abouo last week.

The Cougars are tied for 102nd in the nation in points given up per game with 63.7. But given BYU's fast tempo, which increases the amount of opponents' possessions each game, that doesn't tell the whole story.

A better way to judge defense is through field goal defense. The Cougars are holding opponents to 38.9 percent shooting from the field, which is good for 39th in the country. Out of 346 Division I basketball teams, that's not bad.

But it's the perimeter defense specifically that has been a weakness at times. The Cougars are 75th in the nation in three-point defense, having allowed teams to shoot 31.3 percent from outside.

As a whole, that isn't an overwhelming shooting percentage from outside, but it's against the better teams that BYU has failed defensively.

The Cougars were burned from outside in three of their four losses this season. Utah State only shot 5-of-15 from outside, but Wisconsin shot 13-of-24, Baylor shot 13-of-25, and Saint Mary's shot 12-of-25. The latter three teams combined to shoot 51.3 percent from outside against BYU, and one couldn't help but feel a horrible sense of déjà vu as they all had nearly identical outside shooting numbers.

Things clearly weren't going BYU's way went Stephen Holt of Saint Mary's shot 4-of-6 from outside after shooting only 6-of-32 in his first 13 games (although he has shot it better as of late).

Wisconsin hurt BYU through methodical ball movement that chewed up the shot clock, eventually finding an open man time and time again. Baylor and Saint Mary's were able to catch BYU asleep in transition.

But in the three games since the Cougars gave up 98 points to Saint Mary's, their opponents only shot 16-of-82 (19.5 percent) from beyond the arc.

"Obviously we've worked on things on both ends of the floor, but we've really broken down some things defensively," said Abouo. "Our coaches do a great job of getting us in drills and situations to improve on that, but it just takes effort individually. Sometimes no one can help you stop your guy. It just has to be your effort and desire, so that's something that we have to do is play better individually too."

Coach Rose said he believes his team has improved its perimeter defense, and he attributed that improvement to working on it extensively in practice.

According to Rose, the defense has struggled at times because of a combination of youth and a lack of continuity.

"It comes down to matchups," said Rose. "Our guards – the tandems that we play – they really have to help each other, and we seem to have played a lot of different tandems of guards. And I think if we can get consistently into a group of three or four rotation of guys that are real confident playing with each other – because the style of how we play, guys need to know how other guys are gonna react – and I think that's just a process but I think the more we play the better we'll get."

As a senior team captain, and BYU's best perimeter defender, Abouo has had the opportunity to help his younger, more inexperienced teammates learn how to defend better.

"It's not so much talking and dictating as showing by example," he said. "You gotta go out there and compete and play with 100 percent effort, and basically if guys see you doing the right thing, it's gonna be contagious. So you gotta go out there and defend and stop guys, and guys will see that and they'll tend to do it also."

While BYU's perimeter defense has been better of late, the real measuring stick will ultimately be how the Cougars do in their eventual rematch against red-hot Saint Mary's, as well as two games against Gonzaga, and potentially a third match against those teams in the WCC Tournament. After all, once again, defense wins (conference) championships.

Add in a tough upcoming road game against Virginia Tech, and the Cougars will need to be playing well on both sides of the court in order to build their resume for March.

"Obviously we want to keep getting better, and we know [defense is] an area we can definitely improve on to make us extremely successful," said Abouo.

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