Though no one expected him to be another Jimmer Fredette, BYU freshman point guard Matt Carlino in the last week has filled a void left when last season's National Player of the Year graduated and moved on to the NBA ranks.
The UCLA transfer became eligible for the Cougars in time for last Saturday's highly-anticipated home date against Baylor, giving coach Dave Rose a scoring-minded point guard who can fill up the stat sheet in several ways. BYU has a healthy amount of talent around Carlino, but he could be the final piece that helps tie it all together.
In the narrow 86-83 loss to Baylor, Carlino scored 18 points and hit four 3-pointers, but also committed four turnovers, including a crucial giveaway in the game's final minute with BYU trailing by just a point. Then, in a 93-78 victory over Buffalo on Wednesday night, he scored 10 points, gave out 11 assists and almost rounded out a triple-double, finishing with seven rebounds in his first collegiate start.
Carlino's presence on the floor is coming at just the right time for BYU, who now has the look of a team that could dominate in its first year as a West Coast Conference member. League play starts on Dec. 29 with a marquee showdown on the road with perennial WCC power Saint Mary's.
On Thursday, The Dagger caught up with Carlino just as the real fun is beginning for him at BYU.
The Dagger: The three schools you looked at the closest after deciding to transfer were BYU, UNLV and Butler. What was it that ultimately led you to BYU? How much did seeing what Jimmer Fredette was doing and maybe picturing yourself in that role have to do with your final decision?
Matt Carlino: It had a lot to do with it, watching Jimmer and just the whole team last year. Coach Rose had a ton to do with it because of how he lets people plays and how good of a coach I think he is. Now that I've had a chance to play for him, I know even more how good of a coach he is. In the recruiting process, you just have to listen to what they have to say. Jimmer had a lot to do with it. Coach Rose had a ton to do with it. It's just been a good fit for me.
TD: You had a year to sit out and not play as a redshirt after not getting to play much at UCLA. Looking back on what you did over the last year, what was the key to making sure you were this ready to play and contribute right away starting last Saturday? How do you keep your game sharp?
MC: Just working hard and trying to take everything I could get from everyone — like Jimmer, when I had to play against him. At UCLA, I had to guard Malcolm Lee, who was also drafted this year. I was playing against two NBA draft picks last year every day in practice, so just learning from guys like that, learning from the coaches, and especially just learning from coach Rose and what he wants. It was big for me, because it gave me a year to just get prepared instead of just being from high school and going.
TD: What was the toughest part about playing against him Jimmer in practice every day?
MC: Guarding him, you can't really guard him. He'll make any shot on the floor. You can force him into a tough shot, and he makes it. That's frustrating, because you can defend him, but eventually he's just going to make shots. That's why, I think, so many teams thought they were going to guard him, but he ended up going for 50 (points) on them and stuff like that. He's just such a great shot-maker that you're not going to stop him from making shots. I watched him the other night in an NBA game and I thought it was funny how the announcers were so surprised with how well he was playing. But it's not surprising to me, because I've seen him make those shots all of the time. He's going to make those shots because he's just such an amazing shooter and such an amazing player. I'd never seen a college player as good as him.
TD: I think a lot of people knew about your game coming in and thought that you could kind of fill that Jimmer role, being that scoring-minded point guard who is explosive. How much similarity do you think there is between your game and his?
MC: There are some similarities between me and Jimmer. Obviously, Jimmer can go for 50 on any given night and I don't think I've ever gone for 50 in my life, but there are some similarities. I think I just try to be myself, which is just a guy who can be a pure point guard. It's hard to talk about yourself, but obviously, Jimmer is an amazing player. It's hard to compare yourself to him because he was the best player in the country last year. I feel like that's tough.
TD: What did you learn from him off the court last year? You came in and he was in the middle of the whole Jimmer-mania thing, and it was the biggest story in the college basketball world. Just being in the shadows and playing against him every day in practice, what did you learn from him?
MC: He had to take on being a rock star while he was in college. He still had to go to class, go to practice like everyone else. But he handled himself like a pro, because he was a pro, which for a lot of college athletes, I think, would be tough for them to do. Jimmer just handled himself like he'd been there before. It was pretty amazing to watch.
TD: I think you guys made a pretty big statement by playing Baylor as well as you did, and then you get a big win over Buffalo. It seems like this team is starting to get that swagger back that it had last year. Do you guys feel like, right now, you're really hitting a stride at the right time?
MC: I think we're just going to continue to get a lot better, and this team has the potential to get really good. We have two more games until conference play, and then it really gets started. We're just going to continue to get better.
TD: In the Baylor game, you shot the ball well, but I'm sure one turnover that stood out to you was the one in the final minute with you guys down by one. Did that kind of sour the entire afternoon for you? Or were you able to sit back and say 'You know what? For my first game in a year and my first big minutes since high school, that wasn't bad.'?
MC: No, it definitely soured it. We wanted to win that game pretty bad. But we've moved on from it now. We already had another game, it was a good win for us, and now we're looking at playing a really good UC Santa Barbara team. You can't look too much in the past, just learn from the mistakes.
TD: Just looking back on your first two games, what do you look at and say 'Man, I've really got to clean that up.'?
MC: Just turning the ball over. It's not that I've been forced into making mistakes. It's on myself. I've made stupid errors, forced it too deep into traffic. It's stuff that's easy to clean up. It's just getting back into the swing of playing games. You make a turnover in practice and it's obviously bad, but in a game, four turnovers, five turnovers, that looks awful. I think just not turning the ball over and controlling myself a little better.
TD: The biggest difference between being at a program in Los Angeles and one in Provo?
MC: It's been better, because the fan support here at BYU is much better than the fan support at UCLA. A lot of people care about it because it's a college town here. A lot of people care about the basketball program, considering how good it's been, also, the past couple of years. At UCLA, it wasn't really like that. You're in a huge market, people care more about Chris Paul getting traded to the Clippers or what's going to happen with the Lakers. That's the biggest difference.
TD: What specifically about the style at BYU under coach Rose is different from what you came from? How different of an atmosphere are you in?
MC: It's a completely different atmosphere. It's a lot more positive here. It's just coach Rose is always positive towards his players, with really uptempo speed, he really likes his guys to play to their strengths. He told me when he was recruiting me that he doesn't recruit guys to mold them into other players he's had in the past. He recruits them to be themselves, so that was huge. He really means that, because he just want guys to play the best that they can and knows it will help the team win.
TD: Last year's BYU team made tons of national headlines, it was a historic season for the program. Being a part of that team and now on this one, are there any areas where you look and say this team might be better than last year's?
MC: I don't know if I've really compared them, but I think this team can be really good. I think we're going to get a ton better, which is scary. I really do think we're going to be a lot better at the end of the year than we are right now. I think we can do a lot of good things.
TD: Looking back on your last couple of years — graduating high school early, the situation at UCLA, transferring and now playing at BYU — could you have imagined how this is how it would have played out? Has it all been kind of a blessing in disguise?
MC: It was all a blessing. I think this is how it was meant to be, this is how God meant it to be. I don't look back and say 'Dang, I wish I wouldn't have done that,' because I know it was all part of the plan, and I'm just blessed to be where I am right now. And thankful.
Follow Ryan Greene on Twitter: @ryanmgreene