Yoeli Childs’ return and the acquisition of senior Jake Toolson added to the already senior-heavy BYU men’s basketball team heading into the 2019-20 season.
BYU enjoyed the comfort of a complete roster with depth on the bench from seniors such as Zac Seljaas and Dalton Nixon, while also receiving more bench help from transfer add-on Jesse Wade. The team has since gone through injuries, retirement and other unexpected roadblocks.
The roster and starting five were almost set before the start of the season.
Leading the team would be senior power forward Childs, who averaged 21.2 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in 2018-19. Following Childs would’ve been TJ Haws, who averaged 17.8 points and led the team in assists with 162.
2018-19 WAC Player of the Year Jake Toolson announced his return to BYU as a grad student in May after playing for Utah Valley University for two seasons. Toolson originally played at BYU for two seasons. Finishing out his senior year at UVU, Toolson averaged 15.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
Another senior addition to the team was shooting guard Nick Emery, who averaged 6.1 points a game and shot 35.5% from three and was third best on the team last season behind senior McKay Cannon and then-junior Seljaas. The fifth potential starter was Gavin Baxter, who averaged 4.7 points and led the team shooting 64.8% from the field.
The team’s dynamic took a turn with Childs’ nine-game suspension, Emery’s senior year retirement and Baxter’s season-ending shoulder injury. That left Haws and Toolson to lead, with other players filling in the starting lineup.
Haws is proud of how his team has responded to the adversity and feels it has brought the team together despite the unexpected events.
“I think it’s our chemistry, the way we play together, our heart. I feel like this whole year, we’ve had a lot of adversity and things haven’t really gone our way, but we battled every single day and we’ve gotten better every single day, and I think that has really helped our team grow closer together,” Haws said. “I think that shows out on the floor by how we play, by how we share the ball and by the way we’re just trying to help each other win.”
Seven games back from suspension, Childs is now on the bench after hurting his finger on Jan. 7, two days before BYU faced WCC rival Saint Mary’s. Childs averaged 20.9 points and 10.1 rebounds while on the floor so far this season.
The leadership in the 2019-20 season has varied from player to player depending on the game, but collectively, the leadership has come from the entire senior group.
Besides Haws and Toolson, senior Nixon also added his part, averaging 8.3 points on 49.1% from the field and 42.2% from three this season. Nixon scored his career high of 17 points, shooting five-for-seven from the field and three-for-three from three against UNLV.
According to Nixon, Haws is the leader on the court everyone looks up to, especially with Childs out with a finger injury.
“I think TJ in most ways has been able to step up with Yoeli off the court. Obviously, we have a lot of seniors, and each of us in one way or another is going to step up and fill a void in there with Yoeli gone,” Nixon said. “But I think TJ has a unique ability, especially being a point guard, to control the team and to really help everyone out.”
Seljaas also contributes his share to the team, averaging 7.1 points off the bench. Last week versus Portland, Seljaas scored 21 points — the most he’s scored since his freshman year in a game against Central Michigan.
After the San Diego game on Jan. 16, head coach Mark Pope had only compliments for Seljaas’ enthusiasm and leadership on the court.
“I’m going back to the same guys. I’m a broken record,” Pope said. “This Zac Seljaas, how fun is he? You see him run back on defense and he’s clapping his hands and gritting his teeth.”
Junior Alex Barcello adds his own specialties to the starting lineup, bringing in on average 9.9 points per game. Barcello transferred from the University of Arizona where he got a waiver from the NCAA to play this season rather than waiting a year.
Sophomore forward Kolby Lee has also contributed to the team in Childs’ absence. As Childs’ replacement, he averages 10.5 points per game. On Jan. 16, Lee shocked the crowd, scoring a career-high 21 points with five rebounds. Lee also shot 100% from both the field and three.
Haws has been impressed with how the team, especially Lee, has stepped up to the basket.
“Everyone’s had to step up,” Haws said. “Our big guys in general have really done a great job. Kolby has stepped up. He’s shot the ball extremely well. Dalton stepped up, Zac stepped up, everyone has had to pick up what Yoeli brings. Our guys have gotten rebounds, made shots, played extra minutes and it’s been great to see.”
Overall, the seniors control the court and set the mentality and attitude for the team. When talking about the matchup versus San Diego, Pope expressed gratitude for his veteran players, saying that his group of seniors helps the team keep their mentality even on days where things aren’t clicking. He said because of the maturity of his team, they are more receptive to his coaching.
“Maybe if I was here two years ago talking to this same group when they were sophomores, they would look at me like, ‘This guy’s crazy. Man, we’re about to go out and win this game.’ But now, they just look at me like I’m a little bit crazy. That’s a real, real advantage that we have,” Pope said.
A focus for the coaching staff this year has been on shooting. The coaching staff emphasizes taking the best shot even it means passing up a good shot.
Three-point field goals may not seem important if the team is making its other shots, but for BYU, threes seem to make a big difference. When BYU scores 10 or more threes in a game, its record is 8-1, with the only loss being to Utah in overtime. The Cougars scored 12 threes that night. When BYU scores nine or fewer threes, its record is 6-4, with a close 76-71 loss to No. 7 San Diego State and an overtime loss to former Mountain West rival Boise State on its resume.
Greg Wrubell tweeted that the Ken Pomeroy rankings have BYU projected to win 10 of its final 11 WCC games, also giving BYU a 42% win probability against Gonzaga on Feb. 23. ESPN gives BYU a 35.9% chance to win the matchup against the Bulldogs — the highest win probability that any Gonzaga opponent has for the remainder of the season.
BYU is trending towards a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2014-15 season, and the Cougars are in good hands with its senior leadership combining for 65.3% of BYU’s total points on the season.