A popular Axiom in the WAC is, "hit the road, and the road hits back." No team knows this better than Brigham Young, which the rest of the West loves to hate. When the Cougars aren't taking abuse from foreign crowds on subjects ranging from polygamy to Marie Osmond, they often get showered with ice, cups and paper airplanes. In Laramie, Wyo., fans have even heated pennies with cigarette lighters and flipped them toward the Cougar bench.
But a sign reading THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL that greeted BYU at Texas-El Paso last month struck Michael Smith, the Cougars' 6'9½" ambidextrous forward, as relatively benign. "I guess it's because of all of us who've been on missions," said Smith. But, you know, none of us went to Brazil. I went to Argentina, Andy [Toolson] went to Chile, Brian [Taylor] went to Spain...." Smith was blithely unaware that the title was used by Ira Levin for his 1976 novel about young Nazis.
Unfazed by its tormentors, BYU has used an ingenious offense and uncommon maturity—five of its top seven players are returned Mormon missionaries—to become this season's major astonishment. The Cougars sometimes speak Spanish to each other on the court to hide their strategy from opponents, but they play honorably and hard. So why the poor hospitality everywhere they visit? "I once asked a Wyoming fan," says Taylor, "and she said it was because we're different. We're just a bunch of clean-cut white boys plus Jeff [Chatman]. And Jeff's clean-cut, too."
Team captain Chatman, a 6'6" forward, is BYU's best inside defender and the master of a turnaround jumper, which he claims has never been blocked. While in high school in Talladega, Ala., Chatman's idea of a latter-day saint was Michael Jordan. But he chose BYU because no other major college offered him a scholarship. Now he has forsworn his Baptist upbringing for the Mormon priesthood and jokes about playing on a team with "14 token whites."
Coach Ladell Andersen calls Chatman "the most obedient player I've ever coached," words that may at first seem unfortunately chosen. But obedience is the cornerstone of Andersen's system. He's a persnickety 59-year-old native of Idaho who has become a sort of Rupp of the Rockies, having done head coaching turns at Utah State and with the ABA Utah Stars before coming to BYU in 1983.
Andersen calls this season's Cougars the best passing team he has ever seen, which Taylor believes stems from the unselfishness many of the players learned as missionaries. And BYU's field goal shooting is, at 56.4%, the best in the land. The Cougars are absolutely committed to getting points out of their front line, where 6'9" Jim Usevitch (who returned last season from a New Zealand mission) joins Smith and Chatman. But once a defense realizes that the ball is going into the paint, BYU has the guards—Taylor, Toolson, sprinter Marty Haws and the pesky Nathan Call—to step up and shoot the three-pointer.
BYU ran away with its game in Laramie 83-67. In El Paso and New Mexico's Pit, the Cougars pulled away in the second half to win 81-71 and 89-82, respectively. The win in the Pit so flummoxed Lobos reserve Stan Whisenant that he reached out from his seat on the bench to knock the ball away from Taylor as the Cougar dribbled by. Whisenant was hit with a technical.
New Mexico coach Gary Colson doesn't expect BYU to weaken anytime soon. "Their cupboard never seems to be bare," he says glumly. "Some 6'10" guy's probably in Indonesia right now, knocking on doors."
Call (left), Smith and the Cougars have picked off one foe after another.