Max Good is Letting His Players Play, and That Has Had a Solid Effect on This Squad
As expected, the LMU-BYU game proved to be a doozy, as it ended up being an up-tempo affair (78 possessions total in the game), in front of a surprisingly pro-BYU crowd (not surprising considering the whole BYU being the premiere Mormon university, the strong Mormon populations on the West Coast and the LMU student body being on break). Despite these factors though, the Lions ended up whipping the Cougars 87-76 in a game where the Cougars only led once (5-4 at the 16:52 mark in the first half) and were down as much as 21 (63-42 with 14:05 in the second half). The underdog Lions had a 30.8 win probability in this one according to Ken Pom.com, but they looked like the better squad all game, thoroughly outplaying the WCC favorite (they earned 1 first place vote in the coaches preseason poll) on the first day of WCC play.
With the win, college basketball fans are certainly going to take more notice of the Lions now, and it is possible that the Lions could be dark horses for the WCC crown if this first game was any indicator. The Lions' combo of up-tempo play (72.1 pace), offensive efficiency (108.7 adjusted offensive rating) and ability to create second-chance opportunities (38.2 percent offensive rebounding rate, 31st best in the nation) make them a strong challenger to the traditional WCC contenders like Gonzaga and St. Mary's. And while BYU certainly has had their share of issues this year (mostly on the defensive end), I think the loss to LMU may have less to do with BYU's struggles (they are still rated in the Top-60 according to Ken Pom after the loss), and more to do with LMU's potential (they jumped up to 120 in the KP ratings; they were previously 141st).
And what is LMU's potential? To be honest, it is still early to say, and the USD game will be a strong indicator of whether the Lions are for real or not (the true test of a good team is not just winning the big games, but winning the games following those big wins; USD, though they lost to Pepperdine tonight, is still a quality squad and present a style that won't suit LMU as well as BYU). However, I give a few reasons why the Lions could be a sleeper candidate to swipe the WCC Crown from the traditional powers.
1.) LMU Has Quality Talent, and a System That Caters to Their Strengths
You have to give it to coach Max Good. This may be his best coaching job yet, and if he continues to coach in conference like he did today, I think he'll help this Lions squad acquire an unusual amount of success. For starters, the Lions like to run and play a fast-tempo game. However, it's the way the Lions do it is what makes it fascinating. Good places a strong trust in his players, and lets them create for themselves and settle into the game naturally. This plays to their strengths, because this team has a lot of talented players, especially on the offensive end. Anthony Ireland, though he cooled off over the course of the game, got off to a good start that set the tone for this Lions team. Evan Payne achieved a 118 rating with 27 points. And the best stat of all? Only 7 team turnovers, a 9 percent turnover rate in comparison to the Cougars' 16.7 percent turnover rate.
Usually teams that are given more free reign are more prone to turn the ball over, so most coaches hesitate to do so. But, it's obvious that Good has the team meshing to the point that he can be more hands off, and not worry about the consequences as much. He can do that because players like Ireland, Payne and even bench guys like Chase Flint and Marin Mornar have strong abilities and instincts as players, and that was on full display today as they just outplayed BYU in almost every aspect today. LMU will be fun to watch this year, a stark contrast to their more defensive-oriented, grind-it-out years the past few seasons under Good (the only other year their tempo was over 70 under Good was in 2010). That being said, the Lions will also be competitive in addition to entertaining if they continue to play with efficiency like they did today against BYU.
2.) LMU's Style Will Give the "Power Squads" Fits
I figured that LMU, playing their up-tempo style would be their own worst enemy, as BYU did it way more often (they're tops in pace in the nation) and against a better non-conference schedule as well. I figured teams like Portland and San Diego, who play much slower halfcourt-oriented styles, would be tougher opponents for the Cougars than the Lions, whose style resembles theirs. I was dead wrong. Not only did the Lions not change their style of play in this game, but they did it better than BYU. They dared BYU to play up-tempo and they ended up showing that they could do it better than the Cougars. Give it to Good and the Lions. That's a ballsy move, as some coaches may have opted to slow it down to get the Cougars in a funk. Instead, the Lions threw the uppercut and hurt the Cougars early, and BYU was just never able to recover.
And, in addition to getting a quality win, the Lions also showed that this style will be troublesome to Gonzaga and St. Mary's as well. As evidenced by Sam Dower sitting out today, the Zags have serious questions with their size, and not only do the Lions have the guards (Payne and Ireland may be the most underrated combo in the WCC right now) to match up against the Zags' combo of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, but I don't know how the Zags will fare on preventing offensive rebounds (which LMU does well) without Dower in the lineup. Maybe Dower will be healthy by the time they play, but his absence makes this Zags team extremely vulnerable to this Lions squad. As for St. Mary's, they have showed defensive inefficiencies all season, and that all got exposed at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii (three losses). The Gaels will have to outscore the Lions to win it seems unless they make progress on the defensive end. That "outscore them" strategy didn't serve BYU well today and I'm not sure the Gaels are that much better offensively than Cougars.
3.) The WCC is "Wide Open"
Maybe LMU will fall back to earth on Monday against the Toreros. But, if they win, then they could put themselves ahead of the pack and set the tone in the WCC. As displayed in the Santa Clara-Gonzaga game today, the Zags are not the "Dominant" Zags of last year or even a couple of seasons ago. They are very thin and flawed in many areas, and this is a prime opportunity for a team like LMU to expose them. Same goes with St. Mary's as they are coming off a disastrous showing in Hawaii. Furthermore, this conference is experiencing strong parity, as the lowest-rated team in the WCC (Pepperdine) according to Ken Pom beat San Diego, which is rated in the top-half of the conference in Ken Pom's ratings. There are no cupcakes right now in the WCC, and while that is good for the league overall, it also makes the possibilities of this being a multiple-bid league challenging (I guarantee the top team will have at least two conference losses, maybe more).
Maybe LMU just had a good game against the Cougars, and they'll regress to being a middle-of-the-pack WCC team this season (I honestly do believe anybody is beatable in the WCC right now). After all, they did play lights out on the offensive end (1.12 points per possession), and BYU may just be worse than a lot of people initially thought. However, the talent and offensive firepower is there for the Lions, and with a conference that is suddenly experiencing such parity at the moment, I think those two factors will bode well for the Lions to make a surprising run in conference play.