Dave Rose stepped down as the head coach of Brigham Young men’s basketball on Tuesday after 14 seasons with the program.
Rose’s eight NCAA Tournament appearances at BYU pushed the Cougars’ total number of men’s NCAA Tournament appearances to 29, the most of any school which has not made the Final Four. Xavier is second at 28, Missouri third at 26. You could say that Rose didn’t quite get to the Promised Land. Maybe like Moses, he will be the man who led BYU to the brink of a breakthrough, setting the stage for a successor who can take the last step.
Yet, when assessing Rose’s tenure at BYU, the first thought which comes to mind is not related to anything Rose failed to do; it’s how much he built the program for a period of time.
Consider this about BYU hoops: In the 17 seasons immediately preceding Rose’s arrival in 2005, BYU had made several NCAA Tournaments, but never as a seed higher than No. 7. If I had to evaluate the top three programs in NCAA Tournaments made without a Final Four, I would put Missouri first, Xavier second, and BYU third. Why? Because so many of BYU’s Big Dance appearances have been as a 7 seed or lower. Of those 29 NCAA berths, only five have come as a seed higher than 7, and three of those appearances came consecutively in the Danny Ainge years of 1979 through 1981. Therefore, BYU has been a seed higher than 7 only twice since 1981, when the program reached its only Elite Eight. That came in 1988 as a 4 seed. In the next 17 seasons — all before Dave Rose came to Provo — BYU could not regain that standard.
In the 2011 season, Rose was part of a larger story in which Western college basketball — which has had Gonzaga and Arizona in the national title mix on several occasions this decade — enjoyed unusual prominence.
The 2011 season was hardly spectacular for college basketball in the West, but it was spectacular for the Mountain West, which put two teams in the Sweet 16, and moreover, put two teams in the Sweet 16 as top-three seeds. BYU carried a 3 seed into the Big Dance while San Diego State earned a 2 seed. Given the favorable draws of higher seeds, the two schools worked their way into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and played close, contentious regional semifinals — BYU in New Orleans in the South Regional, San Diego State in the West Regional in Anaheim.
Yes, BYU was denied its dream of a first Final Four when Florida defeated Jimmer Fredette and a team playing without big man Brandon Davies (due to an honor code violation) in overtime. San Diego State did fall short against Kemba Walker and the white-hot Connecticut Huskies, who won three more games and claimed another UConn championship by catching fire at just the right time.
Yet, as painful as it was for Dave Rose and BYU to fall short — along with Steve Fisher and San Diego State — that 2011 Sweet 16 was still a triumph for them and the Mountain West. That was a vision and embodiment of what Western college basketball could become.
This wasn’t Gonzaga. This wasn’t Arizona (which made the Elite Eight in that West Regional and barely lost to UConn in the regional final). These were two programs coming from a place outside the traditional and established power structure. They very nearly made the Elite Eight and contained Final Four-level talent.
In a 2019 season when Nevada’s preseason hype didn’t become what Wolf Pack fans (or some national observers) expected — and the program didn’t rise above the No. 7 seed threshold which has often been BYU’s ceiling over the years — Western college basketball has basically been reduced to one program: Gonzaga. The Zags are the home-run hitter in the West at this moment, with Arizona being poised to regain its familiar place alongside GU next season. We will see if USC — due to its monster recruiting class — produces a top-tier season in 2020. We will see where UCLA finds its next head coach, and if San Diego State is poised for a revival.
Oregon is certainly in a good place, and Washington is steadily improving under Mike Hopkins. Western college basketball certainly contains seeds of potential. Yet, potential is a precarious thing in college athletics.
The Pac-12 — which has not won a national championship since 1997 and not reached a national title game since 2006 — needs to cultivate the kind of depth which will produce larger numbers of highly-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament.
The Mountain West — which has not enjoyed anything close to the 2011 Sweet 16 in the subsequent eight years — was robustly competitive when Dave Rose and BYU joined San Diego State and Utah plus New Mexico and UNLV, forming a quintet of legitimately strong programs which didn’t thrive every single year, but took turns and offered the distinct possibility that in one given season, one member of that group would do well and give the MWC a fighting chance in the Big Dance.
Dave Rose was not a giant in the college basketball industry. His tenure at BYU did not dramatically rewrite the history books. Nevertheless, it did bring BYU to a great height in that 2011 season. Rose is part of a larger story from 2011 in which Western college basketball was more than the Zags or Zona. This is a reminder that for any coach who comes to a non-blue-blood Pac-12 or Mountain West program, a championship foundation and Final Four potential can be built.
Bobby Hurley has shown that Arizona State can play with big boys such as Kansas. His next step is to be able to thrive in Pac-12 play. He certainly has been a plus for ASU, even when considering his flaws and limitations. If he can take the next step in Tempe, Hurley will show that a sleeping giant doesn’t have to stay in bed forever.
Dave Rose showed at BYU that a program’s ceiling can always be pushed to a higher level. That lesson — from the 2011 Sweet 16 — is waiting to be applied by his successor in Provo.
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