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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 14 BYU Cougars

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Once again, there is a ton of talent in Provo.

NCAA Basketball: Brigham Young at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

2018-19 Record: 19-13 (11-5)
Key Returners: Yoeli Childs (F, Sr.), Zac Seljaas (G, Sr.), Dalton Nixon (F, Sr.), TJ Haws (G, Sr.)
Key Losses: Luke Worthington and McKay Cannon (graduation), Jahshire Hardnett and Colby Leifson (transfer), Nick Emery (retirement), Gavin Baxter (season-ending injury).
Key Newcomers: Jake Toolson (G, Sr. via Utah Valley), Jesse Wade (G, So. via Gonzaga)

It has been a tumultuous year in Provo. When Dave Rose said goodbye after 14 seasons this past spring, Cougar fans were hopeful that the program would turn a corner.

But the NCAA had other ideas.

First, they suspended Yoeli Childs nine games for a draft-related paperwork snafu which he and the program self-reported. Then, the NCAA’s decision was upheld forcing BYU to vacate 47 wins over two seasons due to improper benefits received by the now-retired Nick Emery. Adding insult to injury, Emery, who would have been a senior this season, decided to smash the program on Twitter — losing him is probably for the best, honestly.

Adding insult to injury isn’t just a phrase in this case. The Cougars have taken a beating. Senior guard TJ Haws underwent knee surgery and Zac Seljaas broke his foot during the team’s summer trip to Italy. Then, late last month, sophomore forward Gavin Baxter suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.

It’s not all bad, though. Haws and Seljaas are expected to be ready to go for the season opener. New head coach Mark Pope made the move back to BYU after unprecedented success at Utah Valley, and he brought former Cougar Jake Toolson, defending WAC Player of the Year, with him.

The roster is loaded with seniors, seven in all, who will be looking to cap off their career with a trip to the NCAA Tournament. BYU hasn’t made the dance since 2015 and the only player on the roster with NCAA experience in a BYU jersey is Jake Toolson, who played six minutes in a 2015 First Four loss to Mississippi. It’s do-or-die time for a group of guys who came to Provo as highly-touted prospects.

Key Non-Conference Games

The Cougars are one of the lucky mid-major programs that has little trouble putting together a solid schedule year after year. The Houston and San Diego State games are return trips from last season. Out on Maui, the Cougars will be part of a loaded field that includes preseason Final Four contenders in Kansas and Michigan State. And of course, as I explained in an article on teams from the state of Utah, BYU will face a bunch of in-state rivals once again this year.

Nov. 9 vs. San Diego State
Nov. 15 at Houston
Nov. 20 at Boise State
Nov. 25-27: Maui Invitational (UCLA, Chaminade/Kansas, TBD)
Dec. 14 vs. Utah State (in Salt Lake City)

Three Things to Watch

A New Era

Dave Rose is gone. The coach who brought us Jimmermania and a ton of run-and-gun teams is no longer in Provo. Under Rose, the Cougars ranked among the 50 fastest teams in the nation in 11 of his 14 seasons, per KenPom. They ranked in the top ten in six of those seasons. For years now, we’ve seen the BYU Cougars play fast.

But what will happen under new head coach Mark Pope?

Pope’s teams ranked in the top-15 nationally in pace in his first two years in Orem, but then outside of the top-100 in the next two years. And those two slower teams happened to be his most successful. Does he bring the speed to BYU?

The Early Season Jitters

For BYU, the first half of the season is going to be brutal. Yoeli Childs is suspended. Zac Seljaas and TJ Haws are coming off of surgery. A wonderful core of players will be at less than 100%. This team is, when fully healthy, an NCAA Tournament team. But they’ll start the season as far less. Can they handle a tough first two months without digging a hole too deep to escape?

The New(ish) Guy

At this time last year, nobody would have guessed that the biggest factor entering the 2019-2020 season would be how Jake Toolson fit into the roster. Because he wasn’t on the roster. And neither was his coach. But now, here they both are. And he’s looking more and more important by the day.

Sure, adding the defending WAC Player of the Year would be big for any team. But BYU was a miserable shooting team last season and Toolson slots in as someone who can immediately remedy that. If things go well, and he does fit that role, this team might just survive the brutal early slate. Otherwise, they’ll be back on the bubble again.

X-Factor

If you want to make noise in this game you need a quality point guard. So, for the BYU Cougars, this year’s results fall squarely on the shoulders of senior point guard TJ Haws.

The 24-year-old who has had Cougar blue running through his veins since before he was born is without a doubt the talisman for the 2019-20 team. Haws, son of Marty, a Cougar legend, and brother of Tyler, the team’s all-time leading scorer, has been walking in the footsteps of greats since he stepped on campus.

This year, like never before, he has an opportunity to take over and lead a squad. For better or for worse, this year will be what defines the youngest Haws’ career at BYU. He’s capable of leading this team deep into March, which is something that hasn’t happened in quite a while.