It was just minutes after BYU routed Long Beach State 93-72 in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on March 16 when head coach Mark Pope and Caleb Lohner addressed the media after Lohner’s career-high 20 points.

Three nights later, it was Pope and Gideon George sitting at the same table following George’s career-high 27 points in the Cougars’ 90-71 victory against Northern Iowa.

Those were happy nights where Pope showered both players with praise and all three expounded on the prospect of bigger things to come next season. But in the new world of college basketball, that was a long time ago.

Just 24 hours ago, national basketball guru Jeff Goodman reported that 1,418 Division I college basketball players are in the transfer portal, including 1,241 scholarship kids. That was before Lohner, George and Gavin Baxter jumped into the pool of the unknown, growing the assembly to 1,421 — a number that now fluctuates as freely as the Dow Jones.

Baxter has been sidelined for three seasons with injuries, but with one year of eligibility remaining, he tossed his name into the portal. This gives Pope and his staff the possibility of seven scholarships to fill with three expected to go to a trio of returning missionaries.

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The college game will never be the same.

The unique COVID-19-free season, which didn’t count against an athlete’s eligibility, will work its way through the system, much like the flu bug — disruptive and volatile, but eventually passes. The NCAA approved one-time transfer rule and the portal that accommodates it, however, is a complete game changer.

It used to be when a player transferred from a D-I school to another, he or she would be required to sit out a full season of competition. This made the move harder to make and required deeper thought. As a result, there was never a transfer number remotely close to what we are seeing today.

In addition, the name, image and likeness legislation also provides new opportunities for athletes to cash in on themselves. But it is nothing compared to the commotion caused by the transfer portal loaded with unfulfilled dreams and unmet expectations, and it is certainly being felt at BYU.

In the Cougars’ case, the question to ask is who is benefitting the most here — the player or the program? At the moment, and as was reflected last season, BYU is in no way, shape or form ready for the Big 12 Conference, but that day is coming July 1, 2023.

Pope is a smart guy. Remember, he quit medical school to become a coach. I doubt he’s prepared to perform coronary bypass surgery on a human, but he is clearly qualified and justified to do it to his basketball program.

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Anyone who watched Kansas defeat North Carolina in the NCAA championship game must recognize the enormous challenge that is coming. Without surgery, the Cougars will go flatline the moment they join the league and come to rest at the bottom of the conference.

For several weeks, BYU fans have watched five scholarship players proclaim their departures — Lohner, George, Baxter, Hunter Erickson and Nate Hansen. The Cougars also lose Alex Barcello, Te’Jon Lucas and Richard Harward to graduation or health reasons.

That’s a lot and there could be more.

While graduation is understandable and commendable, those going into the portal are taking a leap of faith that where they land will be better than where they were. The jump comes with no guarantees.

Fortunately, in BYU’s case, the transfer portal swings both ways. The departures give Pope and his staff opportunities to get better, faster. It’s hard to say goodbye or watch someone you enjoy leave for somewhere else, but personalities, while endearing to fans, don’t win games.

BYU in action against Northern Iowa during NIT play at the Marriott Center on March 19, 2022. Due to a rash of players entering the transfer portal, new faces will be running the hardwood in Provo next season. | Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

By the cold-blooded numbers, those void of fan favoritisms, this is what BYU is losing to the portal:

Caleb Lohner: Appeared in 35 games with 31 starts. He averaged 7 points and 6.7 rebounds. He shot 21% from the 3-point line and 55% from the free-throw line. Despite a season-high 20 points against Long Beach State in the NIT, Lohner scored six points or fewer in 17 games and finished third on the team with 59 turnovers.

Gideon George: Appeared in 33 games with 18 starts. He averaged 8.8 points and 5 rebounds. George shot 34% from the 3-point line and 68% from the foul line. He scored a season-high 27 against Long Beach State, but was held to single-digit scoring in 20 games.

Hunter Erickson: Appeared in 19 games with zero starts. He averaged 1.1 points and was held to a single basket in his last 11 appearances.

Nate Hansen: Appeared in 10 games and took six shots.

Gavin Baxter: Appeared in 47 games with 18 starts. He played in 30 games during the 2018-19 season, but due to injures he has played in just 17 games over the last three seasons. Last year, Baxter tore his ACL during the first half at Utah Valley on Dec. 1 and was lost for the season.

Losing kids to the portal is a public relations blow, but it is a sign of the times and probably shouldn’t be taken personally. It’s also important to consider that with the right find, Pope can replace the 2021-22 productivity of all five of those departures with one signee. Fortunately, he has a handful of scholarships to divvy out to a group of potential suitors, but he must choose wisely.

Just as Dorothy discovered on her march to the Emerald City, finding the right kids in the portal can be a rough road and may end in the same disappointment she experienced after learning the all-powerful Oz wasn’t quite what she expected.

He was just a small man behind a big curtain.

Last year’s “portal productivity” was less than expected from Lucas and Seneca Knight. Lucas was brought in from Milwaukee to support Barcello. He started 34 games and averaged 10.4 points, but he struggled from the 3-point line (31%) and made just two of 17 3-pointers over the last nine games. Lucas also led the Cougars with 79 turnovers.

Knight averaged 17.1 points in his last year at San Jose State (2019-20), but managed just 7.4 in 30 appearances for BYU before injuring his hand. He too struggled from the 3-point line (30%).

In addition to Knight, BYU returns contributors Fousseyni Traore, Trevin Knell, Atiki Ali Atiki, and Spencer Johnson. Highly touted Dallin Hall will return from his mission next month. The 6-foot-4 point guard was named the 2020 Deseret News Mr. Basketball and the Utah Gatorade Player of the Year while averaging 22.6 points at Fremont High in Plain City. A pair of 6-5 guards, Tanner Toolson and Richie Saunders, will also be back from their missions.

Four-star recruit Collin Chandler, from Farmington High School, leaves on his mission to Sierra Leone, West Africa, on July 25 and will return home for BYU’s second season in the Big 12.

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The future is challenging, and the portal will be as important to BYU as any other D-I program.

The Cougars lost 11 games last year and bowed out in the quarterfinals of the WCC Tournament and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. The toughest conference in America will welcome them in 14 months.

It’s time for Pope to operate. He must do emergency surgery, hire a new assistant, and over-perform in the portal — and in the event you know a kid who is 6-11 and ready to play, the one-time med student also makes house calls.

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.

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