Provo • No Eric Mika. No seniors. Not much inside presence, outside of blossoming star Yoeli Childs. And, possibly, no Nick Emery for a good chunk of the season.

On the heels of the BYU football team posting its worst season in decades, it could also be a rare down year for the rebuilding BYU men’s basketball team.

On paper, at least, it will be extremely difficult for the 2017-18 Cougars to rise above the holding pattern they’ve seemingly been in the past few years, and make it back to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year drought.

That’s an outside view, obviously.

The Cougars and their coaching staff — energized by the addition of veteran assistant Heath Schroyer and his defense-first approach — are expecting much bigger things, even if Emery is ruled ineligible for part or all of the season by the NCAA for allegedly receiving improper benefits from a BYU booster.

Season opener

Mississippi Valley State at BYU

When • Saturday, 7 p.m.

TV • BYUtv

“There is no question that the goal of this group is to get back to the NCAA Tournament,” said coach Dave Rose as he enters his 13th season. “In the 12 years I’ve been head coach, this is the first time we’ve experienced back-to-back years without going. These guys have worked hard. They’ve kept their heads down. They’ve got a goal in sight.”

Said junior guard Elijah Bryant, finally healthy after an injury-plagued first season in Provo: “It is NCAA Tournament or bust for us.”

Whether they have the firepower to overtake one or both of the West Coast Conference heavyweights — No. 18 Gonzaga and No. 22 Saint Mary’s — remains to be seen, but that might be what it takes to get back to the Big Dance.

Mika, who averaged 20.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in leading the Cougars to a 22-12 record and second straight NIT bid last year, turned pro and is now playing in Italy. Emery averaged 13.1 points, and although he didn’t match the numbers he put up as a freshman in 2015-16, he’s still a big weapon when his head is right. He will be sorely missed if he can’t play.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars guard Jahshire Hardnett (0) as the BYU men's basketball team plays a scrimmage game known as the Cougar Tipoff, in Provo, Wednesday October 25, 2017.

That uncertainty swirling around Emery is probably one of the reasons why the Cougars brought in junior college transfer point guard Jahshire Hardnett, who was steady and efficient in the exhibition wins over New Mexico and Westminster College.

In Emery’s absence, Hardnett will join returners Bryant, Childs and TJ Haws and returned missionary Luke Worthington in the starting lineup. The Cougars won’t be able to come close to replacing Mika’s production inside, but Rose will try to chip away at it with Worthington and sophomore returned missionaries Dalton Nixon and Ryan Andrus, who begins the season on the injury list with a knee that was recently surgically repaired.

Another returned missionary, Zac Seljaas, will add some scoring punch off the bench and could crack the starting lineup if Rose chooses to go to a four-guard lineup surrounding the 6-foot-8 Childs, who has been phenomenal in the exhibitions.

BYU men’s basketball overview

Key returnees • F Yoeli Childs, G Elijah Bryant, G TJ Haws, F Payton Dastrup, G Nick Emery

Key losses • C Eric Mika, G L.J. Rose, F Kyle Davis, F Jamal Aytes, G Davin Guinn, C Corbin Kaufusi

Key newcomers • G Jahshire Hardnett, G Kajon Brown, G Rylan Bergersen

Returned missionaries • G Zac Seljaas, F Dalton Nixon, F Luke Worthington, F Ryan Andrus

Outlook • The departure of double-double machine Eric Mika for the professional ranks leaves the Cougars with a big hole inside, but they are still picked to finish third in the top-heavy WCC. Expectations are lower than usual in Provo for a team that may struggle to get to 20 wins, especially if troubled guard Nick Emery is forced to miss significant time.