The COVID-19 pandemic wiped away all hopes of seeing BYU in its first March Madness appearance since 2015, leaving a to-do list for the lengthened off-season.
While fans can expect things to change as the year progresses, here are some things that need to be addressed.
Potential NBA draft entries
BYU’s team is loaded with shooters that could go pro if given the right opportunities. First is the Cougars’ power forward Yoeli Childs, who averaged 22.2 points and 9 rebounds per game. The Cougars played a total of 13 games without Childs with a record of 7-7. After Childs returned, BYU had a 17-1 record, with its lone one-point loss against San Francisco.
Childs’ impact was especially felt against Gonzaga on senior night when he added 28 points and 10 rebounds to aid BYU in the win. He also had 38 points 14 rebounds against Pepperdine the following week in his last regular-season outing as a Cougar.
Another possible draft pick is Jake Toolson, one of the most versatile players on BYU’s team. Toolson proved many times during the season that he could shoot from anywhere on the court. Toolson’s strongest asset is his three-point shooting, as he leads the team shooting 47.0% from behind the arc and is tied at No. 1 in the nation.
Toolson aided the team when it mattered the most. Two of his most impressive games were against two of BYU’s biggest opponents: Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. He scored 24 points in the overtime loss at Saint Mary’s and 17 points against the nationally-ranked Zags, shooting five for nine from behind the arc.
Holes in the lineup
The Cougars have some big shoes to fill this next season as they try to keep up the momentum started by Pope and the 2019-20 team. The “Big Three” composed of Childs, Toolson and TJ Haws led the team in scoring and will leave a gaping hole in BYU’s lineup. Prominent bench players Zac Seljaas and Dalton Nixon will also leave next year.
This has been a season of praise when it came to senior leadership, but the Cougars will need some fresh faces to give life to next year’s roster, especially since only two players from this year’s starting lineup will return next season: Alex Barcello and Kolby Lee.
At the beginning of the season when 2019 WAC Player of the Year Toolson followed Pope to BYU, former UVU players Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell also made the move across the valley. Due to NCAA transfer rules, the two had to sit out for the 2020 season.
Harward averaged 7.0 points and 5.0 rebounds per game during the 2018-19 season, while Lowell averaged 4.6 points and 2.6 rebounds. With more playing time, fans could see these two transfers make a big impact next season.
Six-foot-10 Lowell and 6-foot-11 Harward will bring much-needed size to the Cougars lineup. At 6-foot-9, Kolby Lee was the tallest on starter on BYU’s team, which is undersized compare to other top WCC teams like Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, which had a combination of eight players that stood 6 feet or taller. BYU ranked No. 287 in the nation in rebounds per game, with size playing a large factor.
Also to make an impact is 6-foot-9 Gavin Baxter, who sat out the majority of the 2020 season due to a torn labrum in his shoulder. Cougar fans only got to see Baxter in a few games this season, but they can expect to see him get more playing time next season.
Baxter averaged 4.0 points and 2.8 rebounds as a freshman for the Cougars in the 2018-19 season. Gonzaga transfer Jesse Wade is in the same boat, as he had been injured for the past two seasons.
Another potential starter is freshman Trevin Knell, who saw the court a few times this season. His season-high was nine points against Montana Tech, shooting four for six from the field in 12 minutes of play. He also got playing time against a higher-caliber Virginia Tech, shooting two for four from behind the arc and adding six points in his 11 minutes of play.
The roster as we know it now will change, but these few players could vie for the three starting positions left behind. Fans can expect to see familiar faces again next seasons, especially that of Barcello, Lee, Baxter and sophomore Connor Harding. But with so many players leaving, the team’s future looks uncertain.
Room for improvement
BYU’s offensive output grabbed the attention of sports fans and analysts alike, as it made a complete flip from offensive play last season. ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said that with BYU’s nationally No. 1 ranked three-point shooting, “BYU is built for March.”
BYU averaged 79.6 points per game, shooting 50% from the field and 42.2% from behind the arc. The Cougars had three players averaging more than 14 points per game, with four players of the starting rotation shooting better than 45% from three. Adding to the team’s impressive shooting was 17.4 assists per game, which earned it a No. 5 national ranking. BYU also ranks No. 2 in the nation in assists-to-turnover ratio at 1.57.
In contrast, BYU’s defense was only average, at least compared to its offense — and their opponents certainly didn’t have a difficult time scoring. BYU let its opponents score 43.8% of field goals, which led to BYU’s No. 225 ranking in the NCAA. The team also allowed its opponents to score 68.4 points per game, causing BYU to rank No. 149 in the country.
Pope constantly stressed the importance of defense over the season and vowed to keep working and moving forward despite setbacks.
The Cougars had a successful season overall, at least in terms of finishing high in national ranks and becoming a “lock” for the NCAA tournament that never had the chance to play out. While the 2019-20 season was historic in its own right, Pope said all his team can do now is move on and prepare for the future.