With a simple signature, did BYU become a better basketball team than the one that surprised the Big 12, took up a residency in the AP Top 25 and earned a few minutes on the dance floor at the NCAA Tournament? If the answer is measured in height, weight and production, it’s probably yes.

Adding 6-foot-8, 231-pound Keba Keita from the transfer portal is big. So big, in fact, that it trumps more than the Cougars lost, including a 34-game starter (Spencer Johnson), the Big 12′s Sixth Man of the Year and potential NBA draft pick (Jaxson Robinson) and Noah Waterman, who entered the transfer portal just before Sunday’s deadline.

How so?

BYU returns a slew of 3-point shooters, defenders and ball handlers, with several more scholarships for head coach Kevin Young to fill. But Keita brings an element the 2023-24 team didn’t have and badly needed — he’s a rim runner. The Cougars had size, but not the necessary kind for those nights when their 3-point shots missed the mark or when an opposing big man was eating their lunch.

Aly Khalifa’s passing was magical, but a bad knee limited the 6-11 junior’s ability to rebound and defend. Fousseyni Traore played with a big heart, but his 6-6 frame left him undersized. Noah Waterman never backed down from a fight, but the slenderness attached to his 6-11 body made it difficult to hold his ground.

Keita changes all of that. He is big enough to defend the rim, strong enough to hold his ground and explosive enough to change a game. Still developing as a player who took up basketball later in life, Keita showed flashes of his potential last year at Utah when he scored 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds against Oregon State and when he scored 18 points against Arizona.

In the head-to-head clash with the Cougars, Keita had 10 points, six rebounds and one blocked shot in under 14 minutes of action. It was Keita who pressured Hall into a turnover and prevented BYU from attempting a potential game-winning shot in the final seconds.

Quick decision

After losing two assistants from Utah’s staff, including Chris Burgess who left to join Young at BYU, Keita entered the transfer portal just before it closed. Offers came quickly — as many as 25, with some pitching enough NIL coin to make him a king in his home country of Mali, where his parents Lassanat and Hawa follow him from afar.

Keita wasted little time choosing BYU and his decision came quickly after meeting with Young and Burgess. The Wasatch Academy grad, and friend of fellow countryman Traore, asked for minutes on the floor and NBA-styled development. The Cougars requested a guy who is eager to feast at the basket and selfish enough to defend it.

Both are getting what they want — and need.

A rim runner is different from a rim protector. Keita, who averaged 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 16 minutes at Utah, possesses the tenacity to cause disruption at either rim, rebound and run the floor. He plays bigger than he is and brings the kind of a big-man trifecta BYU hasn’t had since Yoeli Childs finished up in 2020.

Numbers game

As of Monday, the new-look Cougars will be without Johnson (10.3 points, 6.2 rebounds), Atiki Ally Atiki (4.0 points, 2.9 rebounds), Khalifa (5.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists), Waterman (9.5 points, 5.4 rebounds) and most likely Robinson (14.2 points, 2.5 rebounds).

BYU returns Traore (10.9 points, 5.2 rebounds), Richie Saunders (9.6 points, 4.1 rebounds), Dallin Hall (9 points, 3.5 rebounds), Trevin Knell (10.6 points, 3.4 rebounds) and Trey Stewart (2.2 points, 1.8 rebounds).

Also coming back is shooting guard Dawson Baker, whose foot injury kept him out of all but four games. When healthy at UC Irvine in 2022-23, Baker started 35 games and averaged 15.3 points. After a second foot surgery, the slashing sharpshooter expects to be cleared for full practice next month.

Judging by the numbers, the returners outrebounded the departers by 113, but those leaving combined for 64 more points. The most-often used starting five was Johnson, Khalifa, Hall, Waterman and Knell. The Cougars are challenged to replace Johnson, Khalifa and Waterman with their combined averages of 25.5 points and 14.3 rebounds per game.

Solution: Replace Johnson with Saunders, Khalifa with Keita, and Waterman with Baker.

Robinson, Traore and Saunders produced most of BYU’s bench production. Robinson’s effort earned him honors as the Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year. Combined, those three averaged 34.7 points per game.

Solution: Not counting the expected arrivals, BYU can bring Traore, Stewart and highly-touted freshman Brody Kozlowski off the bench. Outperforming last year’s second group may be a stretch, but an improved starting five could also alleviate the demand.

Bouncing back

Prior to the coaching change at BYU, the Cougars were touted as high as No. 14 in the way-too-early preseason basketball polls. Then the storm hit. Mark Pope bolted for Kentucky. Robinson declared for the NBA draft. Hall, Saunders and Waterman (Monday) entered the transfer portal and prized recruit Collin Chandler decommitted while still on his church mission.

Without flinching, the Cougars responded and hired Young away from the NBA. Hall and Saunders withdrew from the portal. Four-star recruit Kozlowski, who had decommitted from USC, signed to play for BYU, and then the Cougars landed a potential game-changer when they signed Keita.

Robinson hasn’t ruled out a return to Provo if he decides to hold off on the NBA for another year, but even without him Young has compiled a roster core that might already be better than the pieces he inherited just last month.

Keita isn’t the only big man coming. He’s just the first and the most meaningful because his presence alone makes the Cougars a contender for a second consecutive trip to the Big Dance and maybe even an appearance in the second round.

New BYU basketball coach Kevin Young flies with his family from Arizona to Utah on April 17, 2024.
New BYU basketball coach Kevin Young flies with his family from Arizona to Utah for a press conference on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. | Nate Edwards

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar,” available at deseretbook.com.