Provo • No good sports stories start with a picture-perfect team that only continued getting better and went off to win the big game. There’s always a level of adversity a team has to deal with or an element of surprise, senior forward Yoeli Childs said.
And that's sort of what the BYU men's basketball team is going through right now.
The Cougars, who start the 2019-2020 season Nov. 5 against Cal State Fullerton, have been dealing with a tumultuous offseason.
“I like to look at it as maybe it's a sign for great things to come,” Childs said. “That's kind of how those comeback stories happen.”
Childs will sit out the first nine games of the season – a suspension from the NCAA after a snafu over his paperwork in returning to BYU after declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft. Initially, the suspension was painful — Childs was shocked.
But there's nothing he can do about the decision.
“You can’t control what other people do, you can’t control the decisions other people are going to make, but all you can control is what you’re going to do,” Childs said. “So, I’m just looking forward to practicing as hard as I can every day, cheering my team on, being the biggest cheerleader, being an extra coach on the sidelines during those nine game and just seeing what good’s going to come from it — who’s going to step up, how it’s going to make us better as a team.”
BYU KEY DATES
Oct. 23 • Midnight Madness, 10:30 p.m.
Nov. 1 • UT-Tyler at BYU, 7 p.m. Exhibition.
Nov. 5 • CS Fullerton at BYU, 7 p.m. Regular season opener.
That was followed by senior guard Nick Emery’s sudden retirement after a controversy-filled BYU career that included receiving improper benefits from school boosters, which the Cougars were eventually penalized for by the NCAA.
Then Zac Seljaas broke his foot during the Tour of Italy, TJ Haws underwent minor knee surgery a month ago and Gavin Baxter tore his labrum during practice a couple weeks ago. However, Haws has already started practicing part time this week and is expected to return full-time next week. Seljaas should be able to return at the start of the season, but Baxter will most likely be out for the entire season.
Finally, there are the players who are sitting out waiting on NCAA waivers – Arizona transfer Alex Barcello and Utah Valley transfers Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell.
First-year head coach Mark Pope said the added amount of twists and turns the team has dealt with this offseason is actually pretty standard. And he loves drama.
“This game is such an extraordinary teacher — and I say this all the time — but when you listen to the game and you listen to where it takes you, it kind of gives you the answers to the test,” Pope said. “Right now, we’re trying to listen really hard and figure out what this game is teaching us and how we get to play and how we get to attack it. How we deal with rotations and personnel rosters is giving us the unbelievable opportunity to be creative and proudly instilling in us a requisite courage that we might not have had otherwise to try some other things.”
With so many players out, the team has had to rely on their depth to recalibrate their roster. So far, a couple of standouts that have been filling in at the front have been Dalton Nixon and Kolby Lee.
Dalton, a senior, averaged 3.5 points and 2.6 rebounds in 25 games last year.
Pope described Nixon as a “freak” who just cares about winning.
“There's no coach in America that would not want this kid on their team,” Pope said. “What he's done this summer and this fall has been incredible. He plays with so much energy and so much intensity, and he's playing with so much confidence right now.”
Last season, Lee averaged 1.4 points and 1 rebound in 17 games. Pope expects people will be shocked with Lee's performance this season because the 6-foot-9 sophomore forward is shocking himself.
“He's playing really, really well and he's earning confidence from his teammates right now,” Pope said. “And he's, obviously, going to be a hugely important part of this deal, too.”
Even though the Cougars' depth is being tested right now, the team has been able to rely on their seniors for leadership. The team boasts seven seniors on the roster.
With all the players out right now, Pope is definitely a little bit nervous, but he's grateful to have the veteran players that have already been through almost everything in their career.
And especially when the senior class is comprised of some of their players, like Childs and Haws who were named to the All-West Coast Conference Preseason Team.
“I think seniors are magic,” Pope said. “I’ve said that since the day I started coaching — I think seniors do magical things. Sometimes they don’t do it in the beginning of the season, but by the end of the season, when they’ve found themselves, I think they do things that people don’t believe that they can do. I think they’re really special.”