BYU basketball: Eric Mika key for great Cougar season


BYU basketball started the season off right Monday night, beating Princeton 82-73 in the Marriott Center. Eric Mika was the key.

I’m must make a confession. I came into the BYU basketball game against Princeton anticipating the Cougars would lose.

Yes, this could be one of the most talented teams to suit up for Dave Rose in his career. They boast a ton of four-star rated athletes. Several of them appear in the ESPN 100 for their graduating classes, including the already-buzzword Lone Peak 3/trio/group.

It’s all the talent a Cougar fan could reasonably ask for.

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But Brigham Young is not a school that gets one-and-done guys. Despite the great talent, I don’t see any freshman whose athletic acumen enable them to excel a year at the college level, and then go play with the NBA big boys.

So it was reasonable for me to believe that this young team, facing their first real challenge, might find the task too great against an experienced, senior-laden, 22-win team from the prior year.

99 percent of Princeton’s scoring returned. Their leading scorer from two seasons ago was back from injury. They brought to bear a lot of games played and points scored, against one of the youngest teams in college basketball.

It didn’t matter.

This game didn’t come down to relative playing experience. That just helped the Tigers stay in it.

The Cougars got the win from being aggressive, aggressive, aggressive—down in the paint, on the break, cutting to the lane. BYU netted 19 more free throws than Princeton even attempted. And there was no one more aggressive than man who may become the Cougar’s most important player: Eric Mika.

This isn’t to say that Mika is going to be getting 26 points and 18 rebounds every game while only missing one free throw. If I were to place bets, I’d bet the scoring title will jump around a lot for BYU basketball.

Mika’s former Lone Peak teammates chipped in 20 (Haws) and 15 (Emery) apiece. And don’t be surprised if, as the team finds itself, the rotation gets deeper instead of shallower. This team has scorers. Guys off the bench will hit north of 20 points. 

TJ Haws, aka the Ginger Mamba, was superlative in his collegiate debut. Nick Emery was no slouch, adding 9 rebounds and 3 steals to his point total. Many thought he would have to carry this team until the Cougars found their feet, and he will surely score a lot of points. The Cougars chances at tourney success will be greatly aided or hurt by Emery’s play.

But Eric Mika is the keystone of the team. When BYU’s Ivan Drago doppelganger dominates for the Cougars, with the pieces around him, they will break their opponent’s will.

Yes, there will be games when Mika struggles but the Cougs still win. With foul calls being the capricious animals that they are, a tough game for Mika is bound to happen. And there will be other times when things are just clicking for young guys. Yoeli Childs and Elijah Bryant will have a thing or two to say on the outcomes. You can mark it down.

But in the games that Mika plays to his ability, his power and aggression will make BYU men’s basketball a force of nature. Not only because of the 6-foot-10 center’s own points and offensive rebounds (although that really, really helps) but because of his presence in the paint.

Like a giant magnet to the eyes and minds of opposing defenses, teams will find themselves pulled out of their system to try and stop him.

BYU basketball is good and it’s going to get better. But the Cougars are also going to stumble, because the most frequent weakness of youth is inconsistency. There are also teams that are a lot bigger than Princeton, that will know the Cougars a lot better.

So you can feel free to pencil in a loss or two. But in any game where Eric Mika plays like he did in their season opener, I advise against counting them out.