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Why Spencer Johnson believes ‘big things’ are ahead for Cougars despite sea of change

Even with all the changes that have taken place with the program in recent weeks, BYU guard is still optimistic

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BYU guard Spencer Johnson celebrates a 3-pointer during game against Northern Iowa in NIT game in Provo.

BYU guard Spencer Johnson celebrates a 3-pointer during game against Northern Iowa in an NIT game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 19, 2022. BYU won 90-71.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

It’s been well over a month since the BYU basketball program concluded its season. 

During that time, there have been many changes for Mark Pope and the Cougars.

Assistant coach Chris Burgess took a job at archrival Utah; Caleb Lohner, Gideon George, Hunter Erickson, Seneca Knight and Gavin Baxter are among the players that entered their names into the transfer portal, though George opted to return to Provo

Lohner ended up at Baylor and Baxter joined Burgess at the U.

Within the program, all the changes have sparked a range of emotions. 

“It’s been a little sad. I was close to coach Burgess and my teammates that have left,” said senior guard Spencer Johnson. “I’m happy for them, that they’re going to pursue another opportunity and figure out what they want. You can’t really blame them for trying to find a new opportunity. Definitely sad. I’m going to miss them a lot. I was close to a lot of them.

“It’s been weird because you put so much time in on the court and you spend so much time with them traveling and talking to them and being with them,” he added. “It’s gonna be weird to have to create new relationships with all the new guys that are coming in. It’s gonna be great and I’m looking forward to it. But it’s definitely going to be a new experience for that.”

Many outside the program may have thought the sky was falling. 

Amid all of the upheaval, Johnson posted a simple but direct message on Instagram in mid-April, using, in part, one of his favorite quotes:  “A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.”

Then, he added, “Just want everyone to know that I believe in my teammates and in this coaching staff. I believe that we are going to win here at BYU and we are going to be incredibly successful! We work too hard and have too much support around us to not be successful. We are going to go all in. So stay positive and keep believing. We have big things ahead!!”

Weeks after making that post, Johnson told the Deseret News recently he stands behind that statement.

“I still believe it,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere, man. I’m here for the long haul.”

Johnson added that he has complete confidence in the coaching staff’s ability to rebuild the roster going into the 2022-23 season.

“It’s just the work they put in. They are always there. They’re there before we get there and they stay way after. It’s crazy, but I actually think they’re busier now than they were during the season,” he said. “They’re always looking for guys to fit their model. They’re bringing guys on campus. They’re doing a great job recruiting. I know they’re going to put together a squad.”

Johnson and his teammates that remain have been involved in the recruiting process, particularly with transfer portal players that have visited campus in recent weeks. 

Coaches text the players and let them know what activities are planned and those that can show up to help with recruiting. Last week, for example, the coaches hosted a recruit at Pope’s house for dinner and a movie.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson wearing white, drives on Northern Iowa Panthers guard Tywhon Pickford

BYU guard Spencer Johnson drives on Northern Iowa Panthers guard Tywhon Pickford as the Cougars play the Northern Iowa Panthers in an NIT game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 19, 2022. BYU won 90-71.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“It’s been good to interact with these guys and get a feel for who they are,” Johnson said. 

One of the recruits that visited Provo, point guard Rudi Williams, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, signed with BYU on May 7, the day after Johnson talked to the Deseret News. 

Williams, a 6-foot-2 native of Hamilton, Ontario, has one season of eligibility remaining after 117 games at Coastal Carolina, Kansas State and Northeastern Oklahoma A&M. 

Last season, Williams averaged 14.7 points per game while shooting 51% from the field, 44.7% from 3-point territory and 73.5% from the free-throw line. He’ll try to fill the enormous void left on the guardline by Alex Barcello and Te’Jon Lucas.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the Cougars missed out on a big transfer portal prize, Detroit-Mercy guard Antoine Davis. 

Davis ranks No. 22 all-time in college basketball career points entering next season. If he continues his scoring pace as a super senior, he would finish with more than 3,400 career points. That would rank second all-time behind “Pistol” Pete Maravich of Louisiana State. 

According to Stadium’s Jeff Goodman, Davis “was leaning towards BYU,” but the name, image and likeness deals, which are estimated to be in excess of six figures, played a role in his decision to stay at Detroit-Mercy.

So the Cougar coaching staff still has work to do to fill out next year’s roster, with three more open spots.

Johnson’s brother, Isaac, a 7-foot center at Oregon last season, entered the transfer portal and while he was recruited by BYU, he ended up at Utah State.

“It will be great. I’m excited for him,” Spencer said. “He’s excited to get up there. He likes the coach and he’s really excited to get up to Logan. He came on a visit here (to BYU). He went through the recruiting process. I guess he decided he liked Utah State better. I would have loved to play with him. It would have been awesome. But I’m happy for him that he found his spot, too.”

Last season, BYU demolished Oregon 81-49 in Portland.

Johnson is looking forward to next year’s matchup with his brother when the Cougars visit the Aggies. 

“I think we’re going to play them up there this year. That will be really fun,” he said. “Their crowd is crazy. I’m hoping he gets a lot of playing time. It will be great to play up there and play against him.”

Meanwhile, during the offseason, Johnson is focusing on improving his game in addition to embracing even more of a leadership role. 

“Coach Pope and I have talked a lot about that. Being one of the dudes that has been here for a couple of years and knows our culture and how we want to run things, that’s a step that I’m going to take — to assume more of a leadership role,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be fun and challenging. It’s a little intimidating at times. You’ve got to bring in all these new guys and try to get them up to speed and try to get this whole thing to work and function really well. I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait.

“Talking to all my guys more in practice and off the court, trying to get together with them and do activities and things like that,” he added. “In terms of on the court, I want to get more comfortable with the ball in my hands, being a playmaker off the dribble and off the pick-and-roll, things like that. That’s definitely a stride that me and my coaches have talked about that we want to take. That’s what I’ll be working on.”

As Johnson and the rest of the program wait for the roster to become more solidified, he remains optimistic about what that roster will turn out to be.

“This transfer portal, it is what it is. You have tons of moving pieces,” he said. “But I’m confident that these coaches will put together the best roster possible. We’re going to be really, really good this year.”

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Pepperdine Waves guard Houston Mallette (0) talks to BYU guard Spencer Johnson after Mallette was issued a flagrant foul against Johnson during the game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News