Turning the calendar page to November means one thing: the return of BYU basketball.
The BYU men’s basketball team is back in action with just three returning starters and a young, but talented, group that has a high ceiling and even higher expectations for the 2016-17 season.
Coming off a less than stellar 2015-16 campaign that featured losses to Portland and Pacific, the Cougars are looking to rebound this season and compete for a West Coast Conference championship.
They’ll be doing so with a plethora of new talent on the team.
Head coach Dave Rose has nine new players on the roster, which means Cougar fans will have plenty of new names and faces to learn this season.
“When you hear that there’s nine new players on a roster, you know that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Rose said. “But this team has worked really, really hard.”
The Cougars lost NCAA triple-double record holder Kyle Collinsworth, sharpshooter Chase Fischer and big man Nate Austin to graduation. Freshman rotation player Zac Seljaas is currently serving a LDS mission in Iowa. Jordan Chatman and Jake Toolson both transferred and Corbin Kaufusi is currently playing football for Kalani Sitake.
With Kaufusi on the gridiron, the only returning starters from a year ago are sophomore guard Nick Emery and senior forward Kyle Davis. Both have emerged as leaders on the young team and were named captains along with senior graduate transfer L.J. Rose.
Other returning players from last season’s roster include Jamal Aytes, Braiden Shaw and Davin Guinn. Aytes was plagued by injuries for the majority of last year, but figures to be a major contributor to the Cougars’ front court. Shaw will be fighting for minutes with a number of talented big men on the roster and Guinn looks to be a starter (at least early on) for Dave Rose.
While a high roster turnover can be a problem, when the incoming pieces are talented and highly ranked recruits, it’s not much of an issue.
BYU adds three ESPN Top 100 freshmen to the roster in TJ Haws, Yoeli Childs and Payton Dastrup.
Haws — the younger brother of BYU’s all-time leading scorer Tyler Haws — will be a key player for the Cougars and a likely starter alongside former Lone Peak High School teammates Nick Emery and Eric Mika.
“TJ is a winner,” assistant head coach Tim LaComb said. “In four years of high school, he won four state championships. He’s real crafty and has a much joy making a pass as he does making a basket.”
With Haws adding needed depth in the backcourt, Childs and Dastrup will add power and presence to the front court. Both are capable of making plays in the paint and both players are comfortable shooting the basketball away from the basket. Their versatility should be helpful, especially when the Cougars start West Coast Conference play.
Elon University transfer Elijah Bryant had to sit out last season due to NCAA regulations, but he figures to be the replacement for Collinsworth. Like Collinsworth, Bryant is a tall and versatile guard who can score, rebound and pass. Bryant is currently recovering from a knee injury, but Dave Rose expects to see him back for game one against Princeton.
The Cougars’ schedule is an intense one. BYU faces tough out of conference opponents in St. Louis, Alabama/Valparaiso, Utah State, USC, Colorado and Illinois, all before the Cougars take on a WCC opponent.
But noticeably absent from BYU’s schedule in 2016-17 are the rival Utah Utes. The Utes and head coach Larry Krystkowiak opted to pay the $80,000 buyout instead of making the return trip to Provo, citing “player safety” as the reason for canceling the series that had been played continuously since 1944. However, the game will return next season.
Within the WCC, the preseason coaches poll has BYU finishing third in the conference behind Gonzaga and St. Mary’s. Both the Bulldogs and the Gaels have reloaded their rosters with talent and most experts have picked both schools to be single-digit seeds in the NCAA tournament.
But the Cougars are confident in their ability to hang with the best the WCC has to offer.
“I knew coming here was a great opportunity,” L.J. Rose said. “I watched a couple games last year and I feel like they were just so close to taking that next step. That was something I wanted to be a part of.”
The Cougars host Princeton on Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. MST as part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon.