Last year when BYU senior guard Jake Toolson was playing at Utah Valley the Wolverines came to the Marriott Center to take on the Cougars.
Toolson said he was confused when he saw Gavin Baxter sitting on the bench.
“I remember when we played BYU he wasn’t playing that much,” Toolson said. “They have this kid sitting on the bench who is just a freak. I never knew what the deal was, but he did get a chance to kind of show what he could do, and he’s a great player.”
Last year’s BYU coaching staff decided to bring Baxter — a 6-foot-9 returned missionary — along slowly. He had some spectacular moments and showed a brief glimpse of what he was capable off last Feb. 2 at home against Loyola Marymount.
Baxter had four rim-rocking dunks and finished 10 of 14 from the field, including two of three from the 3-point line, for 25 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
Last season, Baxter averaged 4.7 points and 3.1 rebounds in about 15 minutes per game. He shot 65 percent from the field and added 33 blocks during his freshman campaign.
Based on those numbers — plus a 7-3 wingspan and the ability to touch 12 feet on a backboard — a lot was expected of Baxter as a sophomore but a torn labrum in October took him out of the lineup. He returned to practice last week and played three minutes against San Francisco on Saturday, much to the delight of the BYU fans and his teammates.
“He’s a team-first guy,” Toolson said. “He just wants to win, as you can tell. He freaking burned his redshirt year to come back and help us win this year. That’s how much he cares about this team. He’s putting his agenda aside because that’s what’s best for us right now.”
Baxter had his first full-contact practice on Tuesday.
“He was awesome today,” BYU coach Mark Pope said, “but he got real tired, man. We did just a junk scrimmage at the end of practice for about six minutes and about two minutes in, Gavin was about to pass out. But he’s working really hard. He’s going to artistically figure out his way to roll into this rotation and he’s really going to help us.”
Baxter said he’s learned a lot while sitting out.
“Now I get the chance to actually take my analysis of the game from the sideline and try to translate that to the court, whether that be on defense, shot blocking or just going vertical when guys go to the to rim distract them,” Baxter said. “It’s different things like that. It’s a matter of bringing what I can to practice, whether it be defense or offense and getting back into things.”
Baxter said he was probably “75 to 80%” but willing to put in the work to reach his potential.
“There’s really no way to get in basketball shape besides playing basketball,” he said. “I just have to get as many reps as possible.”
Baxter’s impact in practice is already being felt.
“First off he just brings a ton of energy,” Toolson said. “Gav brings a lot of joy to the gym and that’s contagious. Having him back is a lot of fun because he brings that energy that we need and that boost. Also, he’s so dynamic and has something that we don’t have. He has the athleticism, the length and the speed. He can block shots, he rebounds and he can switch one through five.”
Toolson said he and his teammates aren’t worried about Baxter disrupting the mojo the Cougars already have going this year.
“He’s an important piece of what we’re going to do,” Toolson said. “If we’re going to be as good as we want to be, we need Gav to be out there with us. There are going to be some bumps and whatever, but we’re going to work through them. We have so many vets on this team, I think it’ll make the adjustment period a little let significant and more of a smooth transition for Gav. He’s very complimentary and that makes it easier for us and we make it easier for him.”
How much will Baxter play this weekend?
Pope said there are a lot of factors in play.
“It probably depends on how comfortable he is out there, how fresh he is, how sore he tells me he is before we get to game time,” Pope said. “We’ve been grinding him out and he worked hard after practice. He went full practice today for the first time. So we’ll see how his body is feeling, we’ll see how he performs in the rhythm of the game and how he fits into the flow of what’s going on.”
Healthy and ready
With the return of Baxter and freshman guard Trevin Knell (broken thumb), the Cougars are a healthy as they’ve been this season.
Of course, since BYU is 26 games into their schedule, no one is actually 100 percent.
Toolson, who suffered a sprained ankle against Saint Mary’s on Feb. 1, is ready to play this weekend but will have to manage the pain and soreness the rest of the season, according to Pope.
On paper, BYU’s Southern California road trip to Loyola Marymount and San Diego looks like a cool beach breeze.
Not to Pope.
“Both these teams have struggled so far in league, but if we don’t come 100 percent we’re not going to have a chance to win,” Pope said. “The game keeps you honest. Unless you are Gonzaga, you can’t roll in with any assumptions. You have to play with every bit of your heart and soul.”
Loyola Marymount (2-8 WCC, 8-16 overall) has lost four consecutive games against Saint Mary’s, Pacific, Pepperdine and Gonzaga. The first time the Cougars and Lions met was on January 4 to open the WCC schedule. BYU shot its worst percentage in league play — 43 percent, though the Cougars shot 54 percent in the second half. Yoeli Childs turned in a double-double (19 points, 12 rebounds) and BYU held LMU to 34 percent shooting in a 63-38 victory.
“I’m always curious to see how teams will change their plan of attack,” Pope said. “No team is more confusing to me than this LMU team. They are switching defenses all the time. They make it really chaotic that way. Even within a possession they will switch defenses and are calling stuff out. They are playing a really interesting lineup right now with no traditional point guard and no traditional two guard. Everyone is 6-6 to 6-9 and really physical. They are an interesting nut to crack so we have our work cut out for us.”
BYU (8-3, 19-7) has won four straight against Pepperdine, Saint Mary’s, Portland and San Francisco. The Cougars are on a streak of nine straight games shooting 50 percent or better from the field.