Having completed the challenging, season-opening three-game portion of its schedule in resounding fashion with an 81-49 thrashing of No. 12 Oregon last Tuesday in Portland, Oregon — while beating Cleveland State and San Diego State before that — BYU now faces a different kind of opponent.
Cougars on the air
Central Methodist (7-0)
at BYU (3-0)
Saturday, 7 p.m. MST
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM
The Cougars host NAIA team Central Methodist Saturday (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv). Central Methodist is a school located in Fayette, Missouri, and belongs to the Heart of America Athletic Conference.
The Eagles are 7-0 — with wins against Ozark Christian College; Central Christian College of the Bible; Avila; Arkansas Baptist; College of the Ozarks; University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy; and Columbia College.
BYU (3-0), meanwhile, finishes the month of November with a home game against Texas Southern next Wednesday before visiting archrival Utah on Nov. 27.
Coach Mark Pope is looking forward to seeing his players continue to improve.
“I think these guys are actually having a lot of fun. They’ve invested a ton. We went through three-and-a-half weeks of two-a-days,” he said. “We have some guys that come from all over the world to be here at BYU. We do it a little bit different. They’re just hungry right now.
“We knew these first three games would be enormously challenging. I think the guys are just excited to get back to work because we think we could be a really good team ... I’m thinking of this as a three-game package. We could have gone 0-3 in these three games. I’m super excited that these guys can grow and be challenged while they’re winning. That’s really a gift that we’ve been given.”
The Cougars faced adversity before the season tipped off with the news that center Richard Harward would be sidelined due to health issues. While Harward hasn’t played, forwards Fousseyni Traore and Gavin Baxter have come up big in his absence.
One of the pleasant surprises for BYU has been the freshman Traore, who suffered an injury in the second half against Oregon and hobbled off the court.
Asked about Traore’s status after the game, Pope said, “He better be good. I’ll be really mad if he’s not OK.”
Against the Ducks, Traore scored a career-high 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the field and grabbed a game-high six rebounds; he also had two blocks.
Baxter, a senior, hit 3 of 4 shots from the floor, scored seven points, collected five rebounds and also blocked two shots.
“How good was Gav tonight?” Pope asked after the game.
Baxter had played in only nine games over the previous two seasons due to injuries and surgeries. He suffered a major shoulder injury prior to the 2019-20 season before returning for the final handful of games. Then he suffered a knee injury in the second game last season.
Against Oregon, Baxter provided the Cougars with a major boost.
“He had a catch on a slip late in the first half that was so huge. His possessions like that were so big,” Pope said of Baxter. “He came up with a stop where he deflected it and chased it to the sideline. A huge play. He was good on the glass, he was good finishing at the rim.”
Pope is impressed with Baxter’s resilience after all he’s experienced.
“I’m super proud of him. It’s been a hard. … What’s special about coaching these guys is, we all know Gav’s story but like seeing him run into the locker room five minutes before our exhibition game this year, by himself, almost in tears and knowing what he’s fought through the last two years, it’s super special,” Pope said. “You talk about a great young man that’s got a ton of courage and has worked so hard when a lot of people would have quit.
“He’s a special human being. That’s how I feel about him. It’s really special to see him progress. He’s got a ton of basketball in him.”
Then there’s Traore, who is averaging eight points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
“You saw a couple of plays — how about the offensive rebound where he comes down and splits two of Oregon’s biggest, most physical players and finds a way to explode off the ground for that little putback? It was incredible,” Pope said of Traore. “He’s a 6-6 guy but he has a 7-3 wingspan. He ends up on his rear end and Oregon got a catch right at the rim and somehow (Traore) got off the ground and blocked it at the rim.”
Pope praised Traore’s ability to learn and pick up defensive concepts in a relatively short amount of time.
“(Assistant coach Chris) Burgess has done an unbelievable job coaching all of these bigs. The way Fouss has picked up our defensive schemes and concepts is incredible,” Pope said. “He’s going to be a special player. He got thrown into the fire when he shouldn’t be. This should be Richard Harward, the seasoned veteran, doing all of the work. But Rich has to step away health-wise for a little while. Fouss has been thrown into the fire and he’s been saving us. He’s been really, really good.”