Former University of Utah center Keba Keita doesn’t hesitate when asked why he entered the transfer portal and then chose to join rival BYU less than a week later.

“The reason I came here is because of coach (Chris) Burgess,” Keita told the Deseret News earlier this month, referring to one of the new assistant coaches on new coach Kevin Young’s staff at BYU. “I love the guy. He is a great coach. At Utah, he helped me improve a lot from not just as a basketball player, but as a person.”

Burgess, of course, joined Utah coach Craig Smith’s staff in April 2022, heading over from Mark Pope’s staff at BYU and before that, Utah Valley.

A three-star recruit out of Wasatch Academy in central Utah, Keita also signed with Utah that same month. He says Burgess was as instrumental for his success with the Runnin’ Utes as any coach on the staff. So when it was announced that Burgess was returning to BYU’s staff on May 1, Keita did a lot of what he called “serious thinking” and decided to jump into the portal on May 2.

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“I want that type of person in my life, so that’s probably the main reason why I came here. I also felt like the whole coaching staff (at Utah), I didn’t feel like it was stable, I guess,” Keita said. “I just felt like I was on an island, almost. That’s why I jumped in the portal. At first, I was just going to see what happened. Then I made the decision to come here.”

Keita said he really enjoyed his time at Utah, and feels like playing in the Pac-12 improved his game. He liked being reunited his first year on the Hill with point guard Mike Saunders, whom he played with at Wasatch Academy.

Saunders played sparingly for the Utes in 2022-23, then entered the portal and wound up at McNeese State, where he appeared in 18 games and averaged 6.0 points per game.

BYU assistant basketball coach Chris Burgess answers a question during an interview while at the Marriott Center Annex in Provo on Friday, May 3, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“I missed having (Saunders) there last season,” Keita said. “But really, I just felt like it was time (to enter the portal). I liked coach Smith. I liked the city. I liked my teammates, but a lot of them also (departed).”

Keita said Burgess isn’t the only reason he chose BYU. He was very familiar with a lot of the Cougars’ players, most notably former Wasatch Academy stars Richie Saunders and Fouss Traore, point guard Dallin Hall and Atiki Ally Atiki, who is transferring to New Mexico.

“When I was at Wasatch we would come to BYU a lot for summer pickup games, all that,” he said. “I am very comfortable at BYU. Even when I was at Utah, last summer I came down here and played pickup. I know these guys really well. That was definitely part of the reason why I came here, for sure.”

Last summer, Keita went back to his hometown in Mali and joined Traore and Saunders in putting on a basketball camp for the residents there. He was also impressed with how BYU handled the situation last March when fellow Muslim Aly Khalifa chose to participate in fasting for Ramadan during the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.

He is now living on his own in Orem, “only 15 minutes away from campus,” but is searching for a roommate before the season begins in four months. He returned to Mali for 10 days in May to see his family — parents Lassanat and Hawa — and conduct more camps with Traore and Saunders.

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When BYU announced Keita’s signing on May 8, Young said he “couldn’t be more excited” to welcome the big man to Provo. Since then, BYU has added ESPN top 100 recruits Elijah Crawford and Kanon Catchings, Russian star Egor Demin and Rutgers transfer Mawot Mag, so the addition of Keita has been somewhat overlooked.

But he could be the most impactful newcomer, insiders say.

“He fits into our program perfectly both on and off the court,” Young said. “He brings a level of toughness, athleticism and defense that has been a big priority for us. I can’t wait to get to work with him.”

Keita appeared in 66 games at Utah in two seasons, and made 13 starts. He averaged 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Last season, Keita averaged 8.3 points per game and shot 61% from the floor.

He’s seemingly on track for a pro basketball career — be it in the NBA or overseas — but said after the Cougars’ first week of summer workouts that he is far from satisfied with his progress.

“I still have a lot of room to improve. So, I mean, I just started playing basketball not too long ago, just five years ago,” he said. “Some people think that’s not a long time, five years, but to me that is a long time ago. I am definitely excited to see how I can improve.”

Keita said his strengths are his athleticism, rim-running ability, rebounding instincts and defensive prowess. He acknowledges that his “offensive skillset” needs work.

“Shooting, dribbling, just my vision on the court, like passing, are what I need to work on,” he said. “I want to be able to do all that. I love passing the ball. But if you know how to do it, it simplifies things, too.

“I would also like to be able to dribble the ball up the court, too. That is why I am going to work on my shooting, dribbling and passing.”

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After just a few practices with Young and his all-star coaching staff, including Burgess, Keita said he felt like he made the right decision.

BYU's head men's basketball coach Kevin Young speaks with Dallin Hall after practice at BYU in Provo on Thursday, June 6, 2024. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“I love the way he coaches. He wants to make sure you understand all the details, not just the basics. He lets you play freely and lets you be yourself,” Keita said. “I think that is really great, because as a player you want to have that confidence so you can improve and stuff.”

Keita was majoring in communications at Utah, and plans to do the same at BYU. When his playing days are over, he wants to return to Mali and give back to the community he loves the most.

“I just want to be able to go back home and just help people,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what, but I definitely have a plan after college of what I am going to do.”

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