PROVO — One day before the BYU basketball team left for Las Vegas to play in the West Coast Conference Tournament, senior Yoeli Childs reflected on the season and his career to that point.
At the time, nobody knew that BYU’s season, and his Cougars career, would end in the WCC Tournament.
The Cougars fell 51-50 to Saint Mary’s in the semifinals. Still, they were regarded as a lock to receive an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
One of the reasons why Childs came back to BYU was the chance to play in the Big Dance for the first time. But the NCAA Tournament was canceled over concerns of the spread of COVID-19.
Coach Mark Pope said that his players, especially seniors like Childs, were devastated by the news of the cancellation because they had sacrificed and worked toward the program’s return to the NCAAs for the first time in five years.
The story behind Childs’ senior season began last March, when he announced he would forgo his final season of eligibility to pursue a professional career. By late May, he decided to return to BYU. The NCAA later determined that Childs was not in compliance with new rules instituted regarding players declaring early because he signed with an agent before filing the proper paperwork.
When the school announced in August that Childs had been suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games of the season, he looked forward to finishing his season, and his career, the right way.
“In March, we’re going to look back and be like, ‘You know what, throughout all of the adversity, we did it.’ In March, when everything is coming down the line, we’ll look at each other as brothers and say, ‘We did something really hard and we made it happen,’” he said at the time. “I refuse not to let this be a magical season. Nine games isn’t going to stop that. Nothing on this earth is going to stop that. Whether it’s injuries or challenges outside of basketball, nothing is going to stop this from being a magical season. I refuse to let it happen.”
The Cougars opened the season with a 6-3 record without Childs. Then he missed four more games in January due to an injury on the index finger of his shooting hand.
Overall, BYU went 16-3 with Childs in the lineup and 8-5 without him.
As Sports Illustrated pointed out, “Nothing might illustrate his impact more than BYU’s 23-point loss to Gonzaga without him and 13-point win with him.”
But Childs always gives the credit to his teammates.
“We’ve shown that we are a very good team without me. It’s been so much fun playing with these guys because without me, they can win really big games,” Childs said in February. “Coming back after the suspension, it was like adding another good player to a really good team. I don’t know if it’s so much my impact. It’s our ability to progress and play together and get better every day.”
Childs averaged 22.2 points and nine rebounds per game this season. He also became the only Cougar player in school history with at least 2,000 points (2,031) and 1,000 rebounds (1,053). Childs finished No. 6 all-time at BYU in scoring. In his final game, Childs became BYU’s all-time leading rebounder, surpassing Kyle Collinsworth.
“I hope one of you guys will write a book,” Pope told reporters about Childs’ senior year. “You could write a book just on this season of what he went through and how he’s responded. He’s had these extraordinary moments.
“When he said he was back at that press conference (in May), he captured everybody. Then a couple of months later (in August) he said ‘I’m back but I won’t be back for a while.’ He’s an extraordinary young man. I don’t think they roll through that often. He’s really special. We’ve just got to keep winning so that it doesn’t have to be over.”
Nobody could have predicted Childs’ career would end like this, unable to write a final chapter in the NCAA Tournament.
At the end of February, Childs scored a career-high 38 points and surpassed the career 2,000-point milestone in a win at Pepperdine. As it turned out, it will go down as BYU’s last win of the season.
Going into the WCC Tournament, he looked back at the 2019-20 campaign.
“It’s been incredible. I’ve just been able to grow a lot. It’s been such a blessing to learn so much about myself and learn how to push through adversity,” he said. “And to see this team thrive together and compete, it’s been a ton of stuff. It’s been exciting to see that there’s a plan that’s greater than my plan. Just because things don’t go the way that I expect them to go, it doesn’t mean they’re going the wrong way.”
This week, Childs told BYUtv, “It’s just a very different time. It’s definitely unprecedented. Looking back on the season, initially, there was a lot of sadness when it comes to what could have been. When you think about missing out on something you’ve worked so hard for but as the days have gone by, I’ve been filled with gratitude. It was such a fun season. I’m just so grateful for every second I had out there.”
The Cougars jumped into the national rankings for the first time in nine years and they upset No. 2 Gonzaga on Senior Night. BYU won its final nine regular-season games to finish in sole possession of second place in the final WCC standings. The Cougars were projected to be a No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Was the season as “magical” as he had hoped it would be back in August?
“Obviously, I was hoping we could go undefeated and win a national championship and be the best team to ever play basketball, so no, it hasn’t gone how I expected to or how I necessarily wanted it to, but it’s been better than I could have ever expected,” Childs said before the WCC Tournament. “We’ve grown so much. Every single trial we’ve faced as a team has helped us grow. It’s been special in the way that we’ve been able to connect together and play for each other.
“The way coach Pope has been able to bring this community together around this basketball team shows how special that it’s been. We want more, though. I think we’re going to do some other things that are even more special than what we’ve accomplished already.”
This week, Childs told BYUtv: “I felt like it was a special season. We were able to kind of put BYU back where it belongs, back in the national rankings and becoming a household name again with the basketball program. I’m just so excited, moving forward. Hopefully, we can be the team that sparked that new era of BYU basketball and these teams in the future can make us proud. I think for that reason, it was special.”
Unfortunately for Childs and his teammates, they won’t get the opportunity to do more. For BYU, it was a special season that was cut short.
For now, Childs is working out, preparing for what come next, which he hopes is an NBA career. He told BYUtv that he’s improved his draft stock since last year and that he could be selected in the NBA draft.
“I’m hearing feedback from teams. There are a lot of teams that are interested, especially in that second round. I’ll just be trying to do everything in my power to move up, to show these teams what,” he said. “I’m capable of, show them my commitment and to do everything I can to be in one of those spots.”
Childs added that he’s receiving positive feedback from NBA scouts as far as his improvement this season. But in this time of uncertainty, he acknowledges there are many unknowns.
“I have no idea what to expect. I don’t think very many people do know what’s going on. But I’m just having faith. That’s what we can do in times like this. Who knows if the draft is going to be later or on time, if the NBA is going to resume,” Childs told BYUtv. “Nobody really knows. But what I do know is, there’s a plan greater than my plan, greater than all of our plans. I have faith in that plan. I’m going to do everything in my power to continue to work and get better at the game that I love, become a better person. I feel like if I do that every single day, God will put me where I need to be.”