BYU men’s basketball seems like a brand-new team compared to last season’s 19-13 record and failure to receive an NIT invite.
The main storyline going into the season was senior forward Yoeli Childs’ nine-game suspension after mishaps in paperwork and agent errors. Childs led the team last season in scoring and rebounds, with 21.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, leaving him in BYU’s top-10 all-time scoring list. After the season, he declared for the NBA draft, then decided to come back to BYU for his senior season.
Following the suspension, seniors TJ Haws and Zac Seljaas were off the court for different injuries. The team’s identity was shaken and to be determined. To top it off, forward Gavin Baxter injured his shoulder, resulting in him missing the entire 2020 season.
Adversity in mind, head coach Mark Pope loves how the team responded.
“In terms of resiliency and in terms of the setbacks we’ve had this year, I think our guys have responded brilliantly,” Pope said. “Not just setbacks in terms of a loss here and there, but also losing guys from the roster and all of the other changes. I think these guys have come every day like champs, and they’re just trying to get better.”
The Cougars opened the season at home hosting non-conference opponent California State University Fullerton, winning 76-58. Four days later, former Mountain West rival San Diego State University handed BYU its first loss of the season in Provo in a with a 76-71 score. Despite Jake Toolson, TJ Haws and University of Arizona transfer Alex Barcello’s combined 42 points, the Cougars didn’t finish against SDSU, which is now ranked seventh in the nation according to the AP poll.
BYU basketball continued through non-conference play without the aid of Childs, earning a 6-3 record. These games included a buzzer-beating 72-71 win over Houston. Haws came through with a jumper and no time left on the clock to secure the win against Houston, who came into the game with a 76.3% chance to win, according to ESPN’s matchup predictor. Later, BYU defeated UCLA and Virginia Tech, both historically good programs. Included in the pre-Childs half of the season were losses against third-ranked Kansas and rival Boise State.
Childs made his return just in time for the rivalry matchup against Utah, a team that beat Nevada and later Kentucky. In his debut, Childs scored his current season high of 29 points before exiting the game early due to leg cramps. The Cougars eventually gave up their 16-point lead without Childs on the floor and lost 102-95 in overtime.
After Utah, the Cougars bounced back and went on a six-game winning streak. In this streak, BYU defeated Nevada and Utah State, two of BYU’s highest-ranked opponents on the schedule this year. At the time of the Utah State matchup, the Cougars were 9-4 and the Aggies 10-2. BYU was not expected to win, but with Childs at the helm with 20 points, BYU pulled off a 68-64 victory. The Cougars continued the streak into conference play, with a 63-38 win versus Loyola Marymount in the Marriott Center. Before Childs, the team was 6-3, with wins over teams such as Houston, Virginia Tech and UCLA. With Childs playing the entire game, BYU is 6-0, with him leading in scoring in every game but one.
Heading into the season, expectations weren’t high considering the tough schedule and Childs’ absence, but Pope embraced the competition and fight that these tough teams brought.
“I think what a tough schedule does, is that it exposes the weaknesses that you have,” Pope said. “We’ve had a tough enough schedule that we’ve had so many different things exposed multiple times. You come back to the drawing board and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to work on this some more and that some more.’ So hopefully through the course of that process, you end up plugging more holes and finding more answers.”
On Jan. 9, BYU basketball put their skills to the test as they traveled to face conference rival Saint Mary’s. The Gaels are 15-3 overall and were one of BYU’s highest-ranked roadblocks so far this season.
Of the matchup, senior Zac Seljaas said, “Home court advantage is a huge thing in the WCC. Everyone has their own gym, everyone’s different and everyone has their own little thing and their fans are as loyal as they get everywhere we go. You’ve gotta dig deep and be able to fight and be able to go to each gym and each team and give it your best because they do have home-court advantage and have that upper hand against you.”
Seljaas and the other six seniors on the team have beat Saint Mary’s in Provo, but none have experienced beating Saint Mary’s on the road. The last time the Cougars topped the Gaels on the road was the 2013-14 season, where BYU scraped by with a 60-57 win.
The Jan. 9 matchup was also determined by three points, with the Cougars losing to the Gaels 87-84 in overtime. BYU came this close without Childs, who leads the team in scoring and rebounds in 2019-20, averaging 20.9 points per game and 10.1 rebounds. An hour before tip-off, the news broke that Childs would sit this game because of a finger injury and will likely be out for weeks, likely missing the matchup versus No. 1 ranked Gonzaga on Jan. 18. The Cougars are now 6-4 without Childs.
Despite Childs’ injury, BYU came close to beating Saint Mary’s behind the leadership of seniors Haws and Toolson.
“It’s a great challenge for us going on the road. Every place is hard to play at and it’s a great experience and it’s a lot of fun, especially going and playing at Saint Mary’s,” Haws said.
Haws went on to score 29 points, with two rebounds and two assists, leading BYU in scoring against Saint Mary’s. Toolson also added his share with 24 points — four rebounds and two assists.
There are many key differences between the 6-4 BYU men’s hoops team when Childs doesn’t play the full game versus the 6-0 team when Childs does complete the contest. With all of following stats as of Jan. 9, the opponents that BYU has played without Childs in the lineup have an average rank of 116.3 in the NCAA NET Rankings, whereas Childs and BYU have faced opponents with an average ranking of 166.8.
BYU’s average win margin with Childs in the lineup for the full game is 21.8 points, whereas the non-Childs lineup wins only by an average of 6.2 points. BYU with Childs averages 54.7 points against and 70.8 points against without the star senior.
Interestingly enough, BYU averages more points without Childs than it does with him, which seems peculiar given that the Cougars schedule has been significantly more difficult when Childs isn’t playing.
BYU’s play on the defensive end when Childs is on the court is the most eye-opening stat, as the team would be ranked fifth in the nation if they held all their opponents to just 54.7 points per game like they do when Childs is on the court.
Assessing his recent injury, Child is said to have suffered a compound dislocation in his index finger on his shooting hand. BYU basketball insider Blaine Fowler, who also works as the general manager for Stryker Orthopaedics said that a timeline on Childs’ return is tough to give because there isn’t enough information about the injury. Fowler did mention on BYUtv that this type of injury typically sounds scarier than it actually is and that the recovery is fairly straightforward if it is a simple compound fracture. Coach Pope said that he has a 1-2 week timeline on Childs’ return if there are no further complications.
BYU is set to take on challenging opponents closer to the two-week mark of Childs injury. If the recovery time is closer to two weeks, BYU will be Childs-less against San Diego (7-12), No. 1 Gonzaga (18-1) and Pacific (14-5).