One of the phrases BYU coach Mark Pope likes to use is, “seniors are magic.”
The Cougars have seven seniors on this year’s roster, the most since there were six on the 2006-07 BYU team. That group — led by seniors Austin Ainge, Jimmy Balderson, Mike Rose and Keena Young — finished 25-9, was 17-0 in the Marriott Center and appeared in the NCAA Tournament.
The last time the Cougars had as many as four seniors was 2014-15 when Skyler Halford, Tyler Haws, Josh Sharp and Anson Winder helped BYU fashion a 25-10 record and an NCAA Tournament berth. With three seniors in 2015-16 — Nate Austin, Kyle Collinsworth and Chase Fischer — the Cougars won 26 games and advanced to the NIT semifinals in New York City.
The point is this: A strong senior class at BYU has often meant success.
“It’s nice because they have a calming influence, right?” BYU coach Mark Pope said on Wednesday at the team’s annual media day. “The longer you are in athletics the more experience you have dealing with twists and turns of a season and the preseason and your roster and all the things that go into it. Those guys have experience under their belt to be able to stay focused. We have some freshmen right now who are focused because they don’t know any better.”
The trials and tribulations of the BYU men’s basketball team this summer are well documented. They include a nine-game NCAA suspension of its best player — senior Yoeli Childs — and injuries to two key players in senior Zac Seljaas and sophomore Gavin Baxter.
Throw in a trip to Italy for four games, the retirement and subsequent social media attack on the coaches from former Cougar Nick Emery and you have chaos before the first basket has been scored.
“It’s standard for the course,” Pope said. “We love drama, this is what we do. When you listen to the game and you listen to where it takes you, it kind of gives you the answers to the test. So right now we’re trying to listen really hard to figure out how we can play and how we can attack it.
“It’s probably instilling in us a reckless courage we might not have otherwise to try some different things. I think it’s really fun basketball to watch and really fun basketball to play, because every moment is filled with sheer terror about whether it’s going to work or not.”
Pope is given to hyperbole and self-deprecating humor at times, but he’s not far off. He has just two post players heading into the start of the season — 6-foot-7 senior Dalton Nixon and 6-9 sophomore Kolby Lee — holding down the fort at least until Childs gets back. Baxter may be out the entire season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
“We have a good core group of seniors and we really make it an emphasis every day to set an example to lead and to buy in to what Coach Pope and the other coaches have in mind for us,” Nixon said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to commit to each and hold each other accountable and I think that’s where the magic comes from is because we all play for each other.”
The best size on the team will be on the bench with the coaches — Pope (6-9), assistant coaches Chris Burgess (6-11) and Nick Robinson (6-6) along with grad assistants Nate Austin (6-11) and Luke Worthington (6-10).
Expect a lot of four guard lineups, up-tempo play and plenty of 3-pointers, especially early in the season.
One of those guards will be senior TJ Haws, who averaged 17 points per game last season and is trying to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his BYU career.
“I think this senior class has ton of experience,” he said. “There are a lot of minutes in this senior class and a lot of games played. That experience is crucial. There’s no other way of getting it but to go through it. Our guys really know what it takes to win, day in and day out, bringing it every day to practice.
“With sports, there’s always adversity. It’s a great opportunity for us to really show what we’re made of and to figure out ways to win, because I’m sure this isn’t the last hard thing that comes our way.”
The BYU team will introduce themselves to Cougar Nation at Midnight Madness on Oct. 23 in the Marriott Center followed by an exhibition game against UT-Tyler on Nov. 1.