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Rebuilding or reloading? What BYU’s 2021-22 basketball roster could look like

With plenty of comings and goings, BYU’s coaching staff is actively putting together next year’s team

BYU’s Gideon George, Richard Harward and Caleb Lohner react after a play against Westminster in the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. All three players will be back for the 2021-22 season.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

It’s been a little less than two weeks since BYU concluded its season with a first-round loss to UCLA — which improbably advanced from the First Four to the Final Four — in the NCAA Tournament.

Since then, the Cougar roster has been fluid as part of what’s going to be an active offseason.

Is coach Mark Pope and his staff rebuilding, or reloading, the roster?

With eligibility being paused in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, seniors have the option of returning for another year. Seniors Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette have announced that their college careers are over.

Senior guard Alex Barcello’s status is uncertain. The Cougars’ leading scorer and indisputable team leader could return for another season, if he chooses. If he were to stay, that would dramatically change the complexion of next year’s team. If he were to leave, it would leave an enormous void at the point guard position.

Meanwhile, four players — Jesse Wade, Connor Harding, Wyatt Lowell and Kolby Lee — have entered the NCAA transfer portal, seeking new opportunities.

Overall, there are more than 1,000 players in the portal right now.

Wade played sparingly this season, while Harding’s role decreased as the season wore on. A junior, Harding played in 26 games and started 12. He averaged 5.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. Lowell, who underwent shoulder surgery last summer, suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in early January. Lee began the season as a starter, but over the final 10 games played a total of 20 minutes and scored just eight points.

For a program that boasted a deep roster, with playing time hard to find for several players, this isn’t necessarily an unexpected development.

Welcome to college basketball 2021, where the transfer portal is a big part of the recruiting equation.

Last year, BYU picked up Purdue grad transfer Haarms, who ended up becoming the West Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and Utah Valley’s Averette from the portal.

Count on Pope and his staff searching for talent there again this offseason.

Earlier this week, Pope spoke to Cincinnati point guard Mike Saunders, who entered the transfer portal, in a virtual meeting.

Saunders, an Indianapolis native, played at Wasatch Academy in Utah as a junior and senior. There, he was teammates with current Cougars Caleb Lohner, Fousseyni Traore, who has already signed with the Cougars, and Richie Saunders, who will enroll at BYU after his mission.

Don’t be surprised if the Cougars end up in the mix for high-profile players in the transfer portal. Last year, BYU beat out Kentucky and Texas Tech for Haarms’ services, while it was among the finalists for Mac McClung, who ultimately transferred to Texas Tech.

Going into next season, those expected to return include Lohner; Gavin Baxter, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in November; Spencer Johnson; Gideon George; Trevin Knell; Richard Harward; and Hunter Erickson.

Among those expected to join the program is Traore, who signed last November. The 6-foot-7 forward hails from Mali in West Africa. Meanwhile, 6-11 center Atiki Ally Atiki verbally committed to BYU last February. He moved from Tanzania to Canada to finish school at the London Basketball Academy.

And there’s former Timpview High guard Nate Hansen, who signed with the previous coaching staff in 2019. Guard Trey Stewart signed with BYU in the spring of 2019 after averaging 14.8 points and 3.7 assists at American Fork High.

Those four newcomers have no college basketball experience.

Certainly, the Cougars will miss the contributions of their seniors. Following the loss to UCLA, Pope paid tribute to them.

“What a gift. For anybody that’s managing or leading or coaching any organization, to have three extraordinary young men like Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette and Alex Barcello leading, what they did on the court is incredibly impressive,” he said. “What they accomplished this year is incredibly impressive. Their numbers are all super impressive. But what they did in terms of bonding and binding hearts and minds together in the locker room and finding a way to come every day and work hard and find a way to build a team that’s better than anybody thought they were going to be.

“They’re great human beings. And they’re going to do great things in their lives. And it’s super humbling to be able to witness that. So I’m so grateful for those guys. I don’t know if we’re going to have three dudes walk through our doors that are quite like these guys. But they’re special human beings.”

Pope’s established a culture at BYU of what he calls “The Best Locker Room in America.”

But as much harmony as there might have been on a team that posted a 20-7 record and earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, there’s not always enough playing time to go around.

“What these guys did that is so spectacular nobody is going to understand — I’ll keep saying it, but nobody is going to understand — is these guys formed a relationship, the likes of which you rarely have in your life,” Pope said. “And with each other. And that, like I said, I say it over and over, that just doesn’t happen.

“These guys work at it and sacrifice toward it. I care about wins and losses. I care about numbers and I care about all those things and all those things are super important. And they’ve got each other.”

Now, BYU’s coaching staff is in the process of either rebuilding, or reloading, the roster.