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This year’s BYU basketball team is representing last year’s team that couldn’t play in NCAA Tournament

Former BYU star Jake Toolson remembers last year’s NCAA Tournament cancellation; looks ahead to this year’s Big Dance

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BYU guard Jake Toolson shoots over the head of San Diego State Aztecs forward Nathan Mensah during game at Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

One year ago, on March 12, the NCAA Tournament was officially canceled — and BYU coach Mark Pope’s remarkable inaugural season at the helm ended abruptly.

Jake Toolson, a senior guard last season, recalls sitting in a team room that day, learning the devastating news that his Cougar career was over. 

“I remember being really sad. It was an emotional day. I was just sad that we weren’t going to have a chance to go do what we were fighting for all year long,” he said. “It was sad that I wasn’t going to be able to be with that team anymore. It just ended so fast without any closure. That was probably the toughest part.”

During the past year, Toolson has moved on, and he spent time as a rookie in the Utah Jazzorganization, having practiced with the team that currently boasts the best record in the National Basketball Association. 

Toolson is still closely connected to this year’s BYU team (20-6), which, like last season, is projected to be a single-digit seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament

“A year later, it’s a bummer still. I don’t think about it anymore,” Toolson said. “But you always wonder ‘what if’ and what could have happened. But seeing this team put itself in a position to be there, I think I can kind of live vicariously through them and ride this with them. It’s the best time of the year. It’s March Madness. This is what we play for. Growing up, it was a dream. It’s exciting to see this team get a chance.

“I do feel like they have a sense of responsibility for the program and the fans and everyone involved. There are so many people that care about BYU and are invested,” he added. “I think the team feels that. They want to be able to win for more than just themselves. What we did last year laid the foundation. It gave this team a pretty high expectation. Maybe before the season it looked a little scary but throughout the year it gave them a ton of confidence. Now, they’re in a similar position. Those expectations became the standard.”

Although BYU lost seven seniors from last year’s team, including Toolson, Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws, the coaching staff is the same, and several players from last year remain on this year’s team, including Alex Barcello, Connor Harding, Trevin Knell and Kolby Lee. 

There have been times during this season, played amid a pandemic, that Pope has called on Toolson to address the team on FaceTime. 

“... Seeing this team put itself in a position to be there, I think I can kind of live vicariously through them and ride this with them. It’s the best time of the year. It’s March Madness. — Former BYU guard Jake Toolson

“The season is so up and down. There are a ton of highs and lows. I know what it’s like to be in their position,” Toolson said. “Coach Pope will call me when he’s got his guys in his office and we’ll talk. I know what it’s like during a season to be locked into what a team is trying to do. If I can offer any support or encouragement, that’s what I’m here for.”

Toolson is especially close to Barcello and Brandon Averette. Though Averette arrived at BYU after Toolson left, the two were teammates at Utah Valley University. 

“I’m just a fan and a big-time supporter of these guys,” Toolson said. “I know what they’re going through.” 

After BYU’s 88-78 loss to No. 1 Gonzagain the West Coast Conference tournament last Tuesday, Barcello was asked to compare last year’s team with this year’s. 

“Definitely two different teams. Both great teams. This year’s team, we crash the glass really hard. I think we’re a lot more physical,” he said. “At the same time, we’re two different teams. We’ve got our strengths and we’ve also got our weaknesses. That’s what we’re going to go back to Provo and work on and watch film and try to get better leading up to this NCAA Tournament.”

Last year at this time, BYU was coming off a heartbreaking one-point loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament semifinals. 

While it was a disappointing setback, it was actually a good thing going into the NCAA Tournament, according to assistant coach Cody Fueger. That defeat was going to fuel the Cougars in the NCAAs. 

“It was going to be really special (NCAA Tournament),” Fueger said. “That Saint Mary’s game was exactly what we needed at that time.” 

Then the NCAA Tournament was canceled.

With the void of no March Madness, many tried to predict what might have been. One simulation by ESPN, based on Joe Lunardi’s projected bracket, had BYU advancing all the way to the NCAA championship game.

Did that make missing out on the tournament more painful? Or did it signify that the Cougars were respected nationally?

“You can look at it both ways. In one way, people are talking about it and I really believe that was going to happen and we were going to make a run,” Toolson said. “It’s cool to get that recognition and people believing in you the way that they did. We were playing our best ball of the year. We had a group of guys that were hungry to do it. At the same time, it’s like, man, we never had the opportunity to do it. In my mind, there was no doubt that we were going to win some games.”

Will it be somewhat bittersweet watching this year’s BYU team play in the Big Dance?

“A little bit, to be honest. Watching the Gonzaga game, I don’t know if the right word is jealousy but it was almost like reminiscing and nostalgia. What would we have been able to do? You can’t live in that head space. But it’s not a bad thing to think about it every once in a while,” Toolson said. “I would like to think we had a part in building the foundation and giving this team that belief and that fight. This is a completely different team. They’ve had a whole season of ups and downs and they’ve battled through it. I still feel connected to the program and to the guys. It’s a little more nerve-racking when I have no control. I sit here watching the games and I feel sick. It’s fun because we all care. We all want this BYU team to do better than we did. We want the program to keep heading in this direction.”

What does Toolson think the Cougars can accomplish during March Madness?

“My sense is that this team can beat any team on any given night. We’ve seen what they’re capable of. They can match up against any team in the country,” Toolson said. “I don’t see any weaknesses defensively. If they get hot and make shots — and that’s what we do at BYU, we make shots — I fully believe that they can make a run. There are so many things that are out of their control. But game by game, I’m never betting against BYU. I’m always believing that BYU’s going to win.”

While Toolson didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament last year, he’s sidelined again right now. In February, after playing in just one game with the Salt Lake City Stars in the G-League bubble in Orlando, Florida. He broke his foot and days later, he was waived. 

Toolson is rehabbing his foot and he expects to be ready to play again in May. He suffered the injury when he was jumping for a rebound and landed on someone’s foot. 

“First game back, it was pretty unfortunate,” Toolson said. “It could be a lot worse. I’ll be back in no time.”

Also in that first game, Toolson played against the Erie BayHawks and fellow rookie, and former BYU teammate, Childs. 

“It was fun. We’ll remember that forever,” Toolson said. “We’ll be able to look back at that experience and smile. It was our first professional game together and we were able to share that. It was cool.”

Before joining the Stars, Toolson was signed in November by the Utah Jazz. He enjoyed his time with the Jazz and the Stars. 

“It was great. I have nothing but good things to say about the Jazz and Stars. I learned a lot. It was a cool experience for me. I was just trying to soak it all in,” he said. “I got to witness at training camp the Jazz and be around the guys. It’s no surprise to me that they’re having the season that they are because I got to see what went into that and the guys that are doing it. They play so well together. They play the right way. The Jazz and the Stars fit my style — space, shooting 3s. That’s why they valued me. It was a good fit. It’s unfortunate that it had to end sooner than anticipated.”

Now, Toolson is hoping this BYU team can take advantage of the opportunity he and his Cougar teammates didn’t have last year. He’s hoping BYU can extend its season well into the end of March.

“I think they’re ready for this tournament,” he said. “They proved the other night (against Gonzaga) that they can beat anyone on any given night. I’m excited to see what they can put together. I think they’re ready to go in there and do what they need to do.”

Just by playing in the NCAA Tournament, the 2021 BYU team will do what the 2020 team could not. And that alone is a victory of sorts.