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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 16 BYU Cougars

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BYU will be Gonzaga’s top challenger in the WCC

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at Brigham Young Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

2019-2020 Record: 24-8 (11-5 WCC), likely NCAA Tournament team

Key Returning Players: Alex Barcello (9.3 PPG, 48.6 3FG%), Connor Harding (6.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG), Kolby Lee (7.0 PPG, 62.5 FG%)

Key Losses: Yoeli Childs (22.2 PPG, 9.0 RPG), TJ Haws (14.0 PPG, 5.7 APG), Dalton Nixon (7.5 PPG, 4.3 RPG), Zac Seljaas (6.6 PPG, 4.0 RPG), Jake Toolson (15.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG)

Key Newcomers: Brandon Averette (Oklahoma State via Utah Valley), Matt Haarms (Purdue), Richard Harward (Utah Valley), Spencer Johnson (Utah Valley via Weber State), Caleb Lohner (4-star recruit)

Mark Pope’s first year at BYU was almost perfect.

Led by a veteran group of seniors and a revamped offense, BYU finally broke out of the NIT-ish funk that plagued Dave Rose’s last few teams. Transfers Alex Barcello (Arizona) and Jake Toolson (Utah Valley) became immediate contributors and gave the Cougars one of the best backcourts in the sport. Even when BYU looked iffy, they were formidable. Despite losing Yoeli Childs first to a (questionable) suspension from the NCAA and then to injuries, BYU pushed San Diego State to the brink, then lost close overtime games at Boise State and Saint Mary’s. They even got their annual win over Gonzaga after getting steamrolled in Spokane.

In the non-conference, the Cougars picked up wins over UCLA, Utah State, Nevada and Houston — the latter coming on TJ Haws’ late heroics.

As the season crescendoed in March, the Cougars were in rare form: They had a top-10 offense, were a top-15 KenPom team for the first time since 2011 and were a surefire lock for the NCAA Tournament before the WCC Championships.

But in the WCC semifinals, Jordan Ford exacted revenge on Haws’ game-winner with one of his own, sending the Cougars home to wait for Selection Sunday to determine their fate.

Of course, that Selection Sunday never came.

As fate would have it, the Cougars would miss the NCAA Tournament along with everyone else. The tournament’s cancellation robbed the world of a trendy second-weekend pick, more Haws heroics, and one last ride with one of BYU’s most talented senior classes in recent memory.

Key Non-Conference Games

Like most teams, BYU barely has a schedule right now. So far, the Cougars are playing in the Legends Classic at Mohegan Sun, which gives them a game against USC and either Connecticut or Vanderbilt. Thankfully, BYU still plays Utah in the the Holy War, but that’s all we know so far.

There is, however, speculation the Cougars will keep their originally planned games against Utah State, San Diego State and Boise State, all of which will be must-see television.

3 things to watch:

Who’s next?

To be frank, BYU’s current roster is much more difficult to pin down than last year’s.

Pope returns 36.9% of his minutes from last season, per Bart Torvik, which ranks 308th in the nation and last amongst WCC teams. Two returning starters from last year’s team, Barcello and Kolby Lee, were BYU’s fourth- and sixth-leading scorers, respectively.

They’ll be joined by a whopping 11 players who haven’t logged a single minute in a BYU uniform, each of whom brings a different college basketball trope to the table. There’s former Purdue Boilermaker Matt Haarms, the high-major transfer who needed a change of scenery. There’s Brandon Averette, the journeyman grad transfer who finally found his groove as a junior. There’s Jesse Wade, the local kid who came back home after injuries and playing time hampered his career. There’s also a JuCo diamond in the rough (Gideon George), decorated incoming freshman Caleb Lohner, plus a couple transfers who followed their coach when he switched jobs (Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell).

It goes without saying that some combination of these guys must establish themselves as consistent starters. Possible safe bets include Averette, Haarms and Harward, all of whom averaged at least 7.0 points per game in their last collegiate seasons.

BYU’s loaded frontcourt

From a roster standpoint, BYU has gone from a guard-heavy, three-bombing crew to team that will win with a revolving door of big men.

This plays into Pope’s hands, as the former power forward will convey his knowledge and experience to a deep frontcourt. In fact, this frontcourt unit could be the WCC’s most multi-dimensional and talented bunch that doesn’t play for Mark Few. Allow Kolby Lee to explain why:

There will be days where it’s me and Gavin or me and Rich or me and Matt. Every combination is so deadly,” Lee said. “I’m the guy that has great touch. Rich is so physical. Matt is 7-3. You can’t teach that. He’s just huge. Then you have Gavin, who’s a freak of an athlete. We have every kind of area that you could want.”

That quote from a recent Deseret News article does not include 6’6 wing Gideon George, who reportedly has a 7’1 wingspan. Nor does it include four-star freshman Lohner, the former Utah recruit who boasts an Overtime mixtape titled, “The Surfer Who Will DUNK ON YOU!” I mean, yeah. He will.

So if the Cougars return to the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to do it by beating opponents inside, causing a ton of turnovers/deflections when smaller guards penetrate the 2-3 zone, and winning the rebounding battle. Simple as that.

How realistic is a return to the NCAA Tournament?

Immediately after last season’s abrupt ending, BYU fans and national media members alike deemed the Cougars were back to being a regular NCAA Tournament team. Stop if this sounds familiar, but people around BYU are extremely confident this year’s team is as good, if not better than last year’s — even after losing three starters and five of its top seven scorers.

Realistically speaking, a lot of things have to break right for BYU to duplicate last year’s success. From a personnel standpoint, the Cougars have to replace not one, but three players who recorded more than 100 career starts and 1,400 points apiece. The Cougars do not have the luxury of adding a sure-thing grad transfer like Jake Toolson; Averette finally had a breakout season as a junior last year, whereas Haarms was an intriguing, albeit inconsistent backup at Purdue. And they’re the transfers with the most D-I experience.

Zoom out further, and the usual scheduling roadblocks are still in the way. Clearly, the Cougars have to pick up several quality wins in the non-conference, albeit with fewer opportunities from the coronavirus-shortened season. That means non-Gonzaga teams like San Francisco and Pepperdine have to provide BYU with opportunities for quality wins, as teams like Saint Mary’s and Pacific are due for regressions this year.

With all that said, BYU finally has the coaching staff and the talent in place to answer all of these questions. Barcello’s production is set to increase now that he’s not sharing a backcourt with Haws and Toolson — plus he was one of the best three-point shooters in the conference last year (48.6% on 103 attempts). With last year’s injury-hampered season behind him, Gavin Baxter could be the long, versatile forward he was hyped up to be coming out of high school. This team was picked to finish second in the WCC for a reason.

Pope’s coaching will put BYU in a good position to become a perennial NCAA Tournament team, but don’t be surprised if this year’s uncertainties delay the Cougars’ return one more season.

X-Factor

Brandon Averette

Since Barcello is the only major contributor returning from last season, BYU’s backcourt is wide open this year. Enter Brandon Averette, who averaged 12.5 PPG and 3.0 APG in 32 MPG last year, all of which were career highs.

As one of the three seniors on BYU’s roster — and one of the few with substantial D-I experience — Averette is expected to become an immediate contributor. He’s already made a mark in the preseason so far: Former Utah Valley teammate Jake Toolson tweeted that Averette was “the best player on UVU two years ago during his redshirt.”

Averette was also one of Utah Valley’s best players last season too. He closed out the season scoring in double-figures in eight of his last 10 games, while averaging 14.2 PPG on over 50% shooting. Although he only shot 32.7% from three last year — a mark that would make him ninth amongst qualifying Cougars last season — Averette is walking into a program that has a track record of turning average shooters into elite ones. Consider the job Pope and his staff did, turning Barcello from a 29.7% shooter into a 48.6% three-point shooter last season. Averette’s in good hands.

Should Averette improve even more this season, BYU’s dual point guard attack will take the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament.