PROVO — Certainly, BYU basketball will have a much different look next season.
The Cougars, under first-year coach Mark Pope, finished with a 24-8 record and a No. 18 final national ranking in 2019-2020.
BYU is losing seven seniors, including three starters Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson, and two key reserves, Dalton Nixon and Zac Seljaas. Those five players provided superb leadership and accounted for 70% of the Cougars’ overall scoring production.
But Toolson is confident that the program will continue to build on the success of this year’s squad.
“A lot of people would look at this season and be like, ‘Wow, they set the bar pretty high in coach Pope’s first year.’ But I think we laid the foundation,” Toolson said. “This senior class, if we did anything this year, we set the foundation for this program going forward about guys putting agendas aside and really buying into doing whatever it takes to win. When you have a locker room of guys that, you can do anything. For this program, it’s in great hands with coach Pope and his staff is, in my opinion, the best that there is in this business. I’m really excited to see where it goes. I’m so grateful to have been a part of it. BYU fans can be really excited about what they have. This BYU team this year will live on forever in the program.”
BYU’s 2020-21 squad will be far less-experienced. For now, it has only one senior on the roster, guard Alex Barcello. The coaching staff will be working hard to develop talent and unity during the offseason.
Barcello, an Arizona transfer, is the leading returning scorer, having averaged 9.3 points per game. He shot 49.3% from the floor and 48.6% from 3-point range.
“He’s so unique. Here’s a Power Five player that’s come here not just because he wants to play but because he wants BYU,” Pope said of Barcello before the season tipped off. “He loves it. He wants the honor code. He wants the focus. He wants this team and this staff.”
One of Barcello’s top moments last year came when he drilled a game-clinching 3-pointer with 27 seconds remaining against Utah State.
“Time after time after time, he comes up with game-winning plays for us,” Pope said.
Pope told reporters last summer that Lee was going to “shock the world,” and he accomplished that on several levels. Lee was one of the pleasant surprises of the season, scoring a career-high 21 against San Diego. At the Maui Invitational, he made 17 of 20 shots from the field.
“He’s been unbelievable, even spectacular, at times,” Pope said of Lee, who shot 62.5% from the floor.
Baxter suffered a major shoulder injury in late September and surprisingly returned to play the final seven games of the season. After BYU’s upset of No. 2 Gonzaga on Feb. 22, Pope said his team wouldn’t have won without the 6-foot-9 forward.
“I fought with him for four months and two weeks, trying to talk him out of coming back,” Pope said. “And he was like, ‘no, I am coming back to help this team.’ If Gavin Baxter doesn’t come back, we don’t get this night. We just can’t do it. We just didn’t have the bodies.”
The coaches are hoping that Baxter can fully recover and make big strides in reaching his potential after an impressive freshman campaign in 2018-19.
“He’s going to be a freak. This kid is so talented,” Pope said. “You talk about a dude that can’t even see his ceiling, it’s so high.”
Harding was a versatile, all-around contributor that made big plays on the offensive and defensive side of the court despite dealing with a knee injury for most of the season.
“Man, he’s been really good. He’s been quietly doing his thing. In some instances, with some matchups, he’s our best defensive player,” Pope said during the season. “He’s been really, really solid offensively.”
Knell, who missed part of the season due to a finger injury, played sparingly.
All of those players are expected to take on bigger roles next year.
Meanwhile, there’s an influx of talent joining the Cougars.
“They’re so many new faces for this next season. There’s a lot of guys that have been waiting for an opportunity and they have a lot to prove,” Toolson said. “Coach Pope does a great job of recruiting guys that have a chip on their shoulder and guys that really want to win and prove themselves.”
There’s 6-foot-11 center Richard Harward and 6-foot-10 forward Wyatt Lowell, who both redshirted after transferring from Utah Valley University. Lowell earned WAC Freshman of the Year honors in 2018-19.
“Wyatt can stretch the floor and can shoot. He’s been able to get into crazy shape,” Baxter said in January. “He’s changed his body. Richard Harward is a big man and he’s also probably in the best shape he’s been in. It’s going to be scary next year with those two. I’ve gotten to know the guys that are up-and-coming.”
“Rich and Wyatt sat out all year long and they saw the success that we had. They took it in and tried to learn as much as they could,” said Toolson, who played with Harward and Lowell at UVU. “Rich is a load. He’s so strong and physical. He does all the little things you need to win. He’s like Dalton but way taller. He’ll take a charge or block a shot and get offensive rebounds. He doesn’t need the ball to be effective. His presence on the court makes him a factor. Wyatt is unique because he’s 6-10 and he can shoot. He’s really worked on his game to put the ball on the floor and make plays for his teammates. I’m interested in how he transitions to this new team and where they play him. He can play in so many different spots that it makes him hard to match up against. He’ll be a nightmare for teams to deal with next season, along with everyone else.”
Jesse Wade, the former Davis High star and transfer from Gonzaga, sat out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules and then was sidelined last season due to an injury.
“He’s a really talented player. He can really shoot the ball. He’s pretty heady and he’s got a little bit of toughness to him,” Pope said last season. “If he can get healthy at any point, he’s going to really, really help us.”
Meanwhile, guard Blaze Nield has entered the transfer portal.
Additions to the roster include guard Spencer Johnson, who averaged 13.4 points at Salt Lake Community College; Gideon George, a 6-foot-6 native of Nigeria, who averaged 14.3 points and eight rebounds per game at New Mexico Junior College; and guard Hunter Erickson, a former Timpview High star who is returning home from a mission.
BYU’s coaching staff isn’t done recruiting. They have reportedly been aggressively pursuing a variety of grad transfers from around the country.
Next year’s nonconference schedule includes an appearance at the Junkanoo Jam Tournament on the island of Bimini in the Bahamas Nov. 17-21. The other teams in the round-robin tournament are Boston College, Tulsa and George Mason. BYU is reportedly scheduled to play Arizona State on Dec. 19 at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
“I’m pumped for next season. We’ve got a heavy senior class and a lot of skilled veterans that won’t be here,” Baxter said in January. “But we’ve got a talented group of guys in the program and coming into it. I’m excited to get to work with them and see how we can jell as a group.”
“We have so much talent and so many guys coming in next year,” Toolson said. “On paper, they might not have as much experience as this team did. But I’m not worried about them at all.”