BYU men’s hoops prepares for busy offseason
The BYU men's basketball team gathers in a huddle before their NCAA Tournament game against USC at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Saturday, March 20, 2021.
BYU coach Mark Pope talks to his team before their first round NCAA Tournament game against UCLA at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Saturday, March 20, 2021.
During the 2020-21 season the BYU men’s basketball program dealt with injuries, shooting slumps, top-ranked Gonzaga and of course, the constant threat of COVID-19.
The season came to an abrupt end last Saturday with a disappointing 73-62 loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. By all measurable metrics it was wildly successful campaign: A second-place finish to the ‘Zags in both the West Coast Conference regular season and league tournament, a Top 25 ranking and a No. 6 seed in the NCAA’s. Five of BYU’s seven losses (three to Gonzaga, one to UCLA and one to USC) were to teams that ultimately moved on to the Sweet 16. Another loss was to Pepperdine, which won the CBI post-season tournament on Wednesday.
Following up the spectacular 2019-20 season that was cut short due to the pandemic, the results were much more than BYU fans could have hoped for.
But know this: The college basketball offseason could rival the annual NBA free agent summer bonanza for turnover and excitement.
The biggest challenge for Mark Pope and his coaching staff will be piecing together a manageable roster for 2021-22.
BYU has three seniors in center Matt Haarms and guards Alex Barcello and Brandon Averette. The NCAA has granted all players an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
Haarms — a grad transfer from Purdue — has indicated several times that 2020-21 would be his final season in college. Barcello and Averette have yet to announce their intentions.
Veterans Conner Harding, Gideon George, Spencer Johnson, Richard Harward, and Trevin Knell are expected to return along with freshmen Caleb Lohner and Hunter Erickson. SLCC transfer Brandon Warr is also expected to be on the roster.
The Cougars will get two injured players back in power forward Gavin Baxter, who was a starter for the first two games before going down, and swingman Wyatt Lowell.
Incoming freshmen Fousseyni Traore (Wasatch Academy) and Atiki Ally Atiki (London Basketball Academy) are raw but talented forwards who will join the program this summer.
Returned missionaries who could be on the roster include former American Fork standout guard Trey Stewart and Jeremy DowDell, the most prolific 3-point shooter in Utah prep basketball history. Timpview’s Nate Hansen and Pleasant Grove’s Casey Brown announced before their missions their commitments to BYU but they were Dave Rose recruits.
Junior guard Jesse Wade announced on Wednesday he’s going to explore his options in the transfer portal.
Pope will be active in the transfer portal as well. Cincinnati guard Mike Saunders Jr., a former teammate of BYU’s Caleb Lohner at Wasatch Academy and Utah Valley’s J.J. Overton, a 6-foot-6 wing who averaged 15 points per game for the Wolverines, are intriguing candidates.
If both Barcello and Averette leave, Pope will be in the market for a point guard or two.
The NCAA is close to approving a one-time transfer without penalty rule and when that happens, expect the transfer portal to at the very least double in numbers.
It’s going to be a crowded roster and a complicated summer.
In addition, the reputations of Pope and assistant coaches Chris Burgess, Cody Fueger and Nick Robinson are growing and they could all entertain offers for new opportunities at higher profile programs.
After the loss to UCLA, Pope wasn’t thinking about what was going to come next.
“The game teaches you all the time how you need to get better,” Pope said. “There are a number of things we can take from this game to get better but I’m not really there right now. We’re so grateful right now for the opportunity to be here at this tournament. I’m personally so humbled and grateful I get to be in that locker room with those guys. They are extraordinary young men. Down the line they all sacrificed so much for each other and fought really hard to find how to love each other.
“We’ll piece away the basketball stuff. It’s hard to do that right now with what I’ve got in the locker room right now: A bunch of dudes that are broken hearted as much as anything, just devastated that they are not going to get to play together again. When you forge the bond they have with one another it’s so hard. It doesn’t come by accident. I’m not sure about basketball stuff. We’ve got to deal with our guys first.”
Pope’s final comments in the post-game acknowledged all of the accomplishments of his players in 2020-21.
“I care about wins and losses,” Pope said. “I care about numbers. I care about all those things. All of those things are super important and this team accomplished incredible things. They’re walking out of this season with a pocket full of records and incredible accomplishments and huge contributions to the history of BYU basketball. At the end of the day all that stuff is fine but they got something that’s way deeper and way more important than any of those things. They got each other.”