The Daily Herald’s BYU sports experts Jared Lloyd and Darnell Dickson weigh in on five of the biggest questions facing the Cougars this week:
1. The return of Gavin Baxter for BYU hoops
1. How big of an impact do you think the return of forward Gavin Baxter will have on the BYU men’s basketball team?
DICKSON: The impact will be huge, both on and off the court. Baxter is always being described as a “freak,” which in basketball is a good thing. He can touch 12 feet — that’s two feet above the rim, nerds — and his rebounding and shot blocker are both desperately needed. Off the court, his teammates know that he’s giving up a possible medical redshirt year to play 10 or 12 games this year. That kind of sacrifice builds bonds and creates the kind of environment that Mark Pope is looking for.
LLOYD: I’ve watched Gavin Baxter play for years and I was impressed with his growth last season. I think BYU has every reason to believe he is going to be a tremendous basketball player as he continues to improve. The question marks surrounding Baxter’s impact this season have nothing to do with his potential or ability. To me it is all about how he fits with the team chemistry that the Cougars have developed. Unlike Yoeli Childs, who was able to practice even though his game action has been limited quite a bit this season, Baxter has spent most of the season rehabilitating after his offseason injury. If he is locked in on the offensive and defensive concepts, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see his minutes go up. But if he struggles to get reacclimated, I expect his minutes — particularly in key situations — to be limited. BYU has been really good without him and should only bring him back if he is able to maintain or elevate that level of play.
2. BYU men's hoops faces struggling opponents
2. Since the Cougar men’s hoops squad is riding high, how dangerous are games like the ones this week against teams on the road who have struggled?
LLOYD: In many ways these “should-win” games are more concerning than matchups against good opponents, simply because you can find yourself with a lot more pressure. If Loyola Marymount or San Diego come out and make big plays, suddenly the Cougar players have to deal with the weight of the winning expectation while those opponents can just ride the momentum. I think it is key for BYU to not come out flat and give the Lions or the Toreros that shot of adrenaline. Unlike years past, however, I think this team is experienced enough to not wither under an early onslaught or being in a tough spot. I think the Cougars get both wins and are fairly comfortable doing so.
DICKSON: Teams such as Loyola Marymount and San Diego are problematic for a couple of reasons. The first is that their low NET ratings drag down any team that loses to them. The second is that those teams have nothing to lose so they can play loose and free. Sometimes you see teams kind of phone in the final games during a bad season. I would guess that’s not going to happen with the Lions and the Toreros, who both would like nothing more than to knock the Cougars out of second place. I think Pope and his staff have the right approach and a senior-heavy BYU team won’t let a great opportunity slip away by taking anything for granted.
3. Success for BYU women's hoops
3. What does BYU women’s basketball need to do to make the 2019-20 season a success in your mind?
DICKSON: I had a discussion with BYU coach Jeff Judkins the other day and he said more than the points, the Cougars miss the attitude and aggressiveness of Shaylee Gonzales and Caitlyn Alldredge from last year’s team. Both players were what you call “lions,” according to Judkins, the kind of players who exude toughness and inspires others to be tough as well. One of BYU’s issues this year is that it hasn’t had a consistent lion this season. The Cougars need that toughness to show out in the final games of the season.
LLOYD: I think this BYU women’s team knows it has the potential to be better than it has been this year, which is why I don’t think sitting at 13-9 (8-4 in league play) is satisfying to any of the players or coaches. The Cougars need to elevate their execution at both ends of the floor. I think BYU is making too many mistakes for the amount of experience it has available and I want to see them do a better job eliminating those errors. For me, BYU needs to put together a nice run and make a push in the WCC tournament to turn this season into what I would define as a successful year.
4. Discipline concerns for BYU football?
4. Do situations like the recent arrest on suspicion of DUI of linebacker Chaz Ah You make you concerned about BYU football’s discipline and commitment?
LLOYD: What concerns me most is the reality that some players aren’t learning from the experiences of others. Other Cougar players have dealt with similar issues, yet somehow it appears Ah You didn’t think he would have to face the consequences of such actions (although those consequences could’ve been a LOT worse and I’m glad no one was hurt). People have to live their own lives and no coach or administrator can prevent all such missteps. When players make these decisions, they have to know they are impacting their families and their team as well as themselves. I think the vast majority of athletes grasp that concept very well and deserve to be applauded for not making damaging choices.
DICKSON: What’s important to remember is that Ah You made an individual choice. I don’t think this indicates a lack of discipline in the program. For every moment as bad as Saturday there are hundreds of other BYU athletes who are making good choices and thriving. The problem with what happened is that it negatively affects his teammates, the program and the university. As individual as Ah You’s choice to (allegedly) drink and drive there are far reaching effects. You would think the situation with Neil Pau’u last year would have worked as a warning to any BYU athlete, but kids still make dumb decisions. Let’s hope Ah You gets the support and help he needs to be healthy and strong in his life.
5. Best part of covering BYU sports
5. In honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s talk about love. What do you love most about covering BYU sports?
DICKSON: The free meals.
Honestly, I love the individual stories that I get to write over the course of the year. Each athlete — in all sports from football to gymnastics to volleyball — has a unique story that doesn’t always get told. I wish I had even more time to write features on various Cougar athletes who have awesome stories to tell.
LLOYD: I absolutely love the passion and dedication of the people I interact with. So many BYU athletes and coaches work hard in many ways that are never made public. The majority of Cougar fans are loyal supporters who want their team to win but will be there regardless of victory or defeat. I treasure the relationships I’ve built with families of athletes, many of who make great personal sacrifices to be there for their sons or daughters as they compete. I get a glimpse into the world of athletes and coaches who are striving to be their best. They may not always succeed — just like the rest of us — but I love getting to see them as fellow human beings, with strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.