Seniors in street clothes. That’s the last thing a head coach wants to see sitting at the end of his bench. But it’s a view BYU’s Mark Pope has had for months and it’s the reason his Cougars are not going to the Big Dance.
Early-season injuries to BYU’s biggest big men Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter didn’t keep the team from winning, but it derailed their long-term dreams of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
The scenario is different, but just as defining from when the 2011 Cougars lost 6-foot-9 center Brandon Davies to an honor code suspension three weeks before the tournament. Just a month earlier, 6-9 Chris Collinsworth was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Head coach Dave Rose had no choice but to adjust his lineup and move 6-6 freshman guard Kyle Collinsworth from the bench to start and play as a big man.
No. 3 seed BYU marched into the Sweet Sixteen to face No. 2 seed Florida. Jimmer Fredette scored 32 points, but made just 2 of 15 3-point shots. Collinsworth, a year removed from Provo High, fought for 15 rebounds.
In the end, without the low-post presence and leadership of Davies, the bigger, stronger Gators, including 6-9 Alex Tyus and his 19 points and 17 rebounds, beat the Cougars in overtime 83-74.
With Davies in the lineup, BYU had a legitimate shot at beating Florida and No. 8 seed Butler in the Elite Eight to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history. Losing Davies and Chris Collinsworth changed the desired outcome of the season.
The 1981 Cougars did reach the Elite Eight, but it’s not hard to assume that had Danny Ainge played without big men Greg Kite and Fred Roberts, BYU wouldn’t have even qualified for an at-large bid to the tournament. Even with them, the Cougars finished third in the very competitive WAC.
Size and experience matter at this level of competitive basketball. BYU lost its size and replaced it with kids who had no college experience. It’s a wonder they won 22 games at all, with the chance to win even more beginning Wednesday against Long Beach State at the Marriott Center in the first round of the NIT (7 p.m., ESPN).
The Cougars’ seismic trouble began Nov. 4 during an exhibition game against Colorado Christian. Harward, a 6-foot-10 senior and returning role player from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, started to struggle with his balance four minutes into the game.
He was fouled while attempting a shot, but he never made it to the free-throw line. Instead, he collapsed in front of the bench and was carried by two teammates into the locker room before being transported to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center.
His teammates were left stunned, confused and frightened for their big man for many reasons beyond basketball.
It was later determined that Harward suffered from a heart condition.
The Cougars’ season changed in a heartbeat — Harward’s heartbeat. His absence caused a shift to their foundation, much like what an earthquake does to the tectonic plates that shape the planet.
The loss of Harward for the season meant Baxter had to increase his involvement. The 6-9 senior was on a minutes-restriction after rehabbing a torn ACL in his right knee the season before.
With Baxter at center, BYU rolled off six straight wins, including tough victories over San Diego State and an 81-44 throttling of No. 12 Oregon in Portland. Baxter scored a season-high 14 points in the Cougars 75-64 win at Utah.
The BYU team bus pulled into the UCCU Center at Utah Valley on Dec. 1 ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 — its first November national ranking since 1981.
BYU jumped out to a 9-2 lead with 11:55 to play in the first half when Baxter dropped to the floor while positioning for a rebound. His teammates watched in disbelief as trainer Rob Ramos rushed out to attend to him. They had all watched Baxter’s valiant rehab from a torn labrum muscle and right ACL that had torpedoed his last two years.
Baxter was helped to the locker room, where it was determined his left ACL was torn. The team was told during halftime that Baxter’s season was over. Again.
Without him, the Cougars leaned on freshmen Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki to fill the void. They were overmatched by Utah Valley’s seasoned 6-11 center Fardaws Aimaq. Prior to Baxter’s injury, Aimaq hadn’t scored in eight minutes, but he finished with 24 points and 22 rebounds.
The Cougars limped home with a 72-65 defeat in overtime and, even with intermittent successes, they were never the same.
Losing Harward and Baxter disrupted BYU’s starting lineup, its bench rotation and put a heavy burden on senior guard Alex Barcello to be brilliant every night, despite facing multiple defenders each time down the floor.
Pope and his staff scrambled to find the right combinations, throwing out no fewer than 10 different starting lineups. It was a far cry from No. 1 Gonzaga, which enjoyed good health all season. The Bulldogs rolled out the same starting five in 27 of their 29 games.
Pope could scream loud into the night that “it’s not fair!’
It’s not. Sports isn’t fair.
Caleb Lohner could easily adopt the same narrative. No Cougars player was more disheveled by the loss of Harward and Baxter than the 6-7 sophomore, who at times played every position on the floor.
During BYU’s 75-63 loss in the WCC Tournament to San Francisco, Lohner was all over the place. He played up high and down low. He spent time on defense chasing around 6-foot Khalil Shabazz one moment and trying to box out 7-2 Volodymyr Markovetskyy and 6-9 Yauhen Massalski the next.
If it looked like he was running around like a decapitated chicken most of the season, it’s because he was.
The various roles he played also affected him on the offensive end. Last year, with 7-3 Matt Haarms locked in at center and Harward as the backup, Lohner shot 46.9% from the field and 33% from the 3-point line. This year, he shot 39% from the field and 17% from 3 (9-53).
All the while, his two seasons of rebounding is a combined 397.
Fans wonder why, being such a good athlete, he just couldn’t flip a switch with the loss of Harward and Baxter and be Superman? Maybe he can roll out a cape next season, but prior to the injuries, Lohner trained all off-season and during fall camp to play a much different role on the team — a role that suited his size and skill set.
The good news is he can get back to that next season. And the time Traore and Atiki had on the court will prove priceless as they develop into legitimate Big 12 big men. Troare shows all the signs of being BYU’s next big star.
More with less
Injuries are part of the game. Teams adjust and move on. But some injuries are bigger than others and losing BYU’s two big men was too big of a loss to win 23 games prior to Selection Sunday. However, winning 22 is more impressive than Pope, his team and Cougar fans will want to admit.
BYU beat Portland 78-65 on Jan. 22 to improve to 17-4, including a win over Saint Mary’s. Their NCAA Tournament projection was a 5 seed. However, the Cougars’ 5-6 finish has them relegated to the NIT.
Imagine what two senior centers could have done for BYU during that stretch?
Lohner, Traore and Atiki will have a chance to come back as better players because of this experience, and with the help of the transfer portal, they might even find themselves playing next to a few guys who are a little taller too.
That will be the challenge of Pope and his staff, who did more with less this season than they ever thought possible.
The end goal is the Big Dance. Anything short of that is truly disappointing, even when your front line is sitting in street clothes at the end of the bench. However, the NIT is a consolation prize and it’s still better than having the whole team in street clothes waiting for next season.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.