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A key injury has forced BYU basketball coach Mark Pope to reshape his team’s identity

With the Cougars missing Gavin Baxter, they’ll have to play faster offensively — starting with Utah State on Wednesday.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Cougars forward Gavin Baxter (51) and Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) celebrates a lead in the final minute as BYU hosts San Diego State, NCAA basketball in Provo on Friday, Nov. 12, 2021.

Coming into the season, the BYU men’s basketball team was ready to hang its hat on its size and rebounding ability on the roster. Players like Gavin Baxter, Caleb Lohner, Richard Harward should allow the Cougars to own the boards and get second shot opportunities, making the lives of their guards easier.

But Baxter tore his ACL in the loss against Utah Valley on Dec. 1. Harward hasn’t played yet this year due to a heart issue, and it’s unclear when he will return.

So the big BYU team up front has shrunk a bit, which has led coach Mark Pope on a path of reinventing the No. 21 Cougars into more of a pace-and-space squad.

“It’s really, ultimately, just one guy — it’s just Gavin Baxter, who is averaging 15 minutes a game,” Pope said Tuesday. “But all the other stuff around it has really made me feel like the identity of our team is just going to be a smaller team the rest of year.”

Pope said having Baxter in the lineup allowed him protect Atiki Ally Atiki and Fousseyni Traore, who are freshmen and still finding their ways on the Cougars. Without him, the rest of the team’s roster will need to move up a spot or two in the rotation.

How that will look in games, Pope said, is more pace and space on offense. More switching on defense. More of sending a second defender to the ball.

Senior guard Alex Barcello said he and the rest of the guards will need to help whatever size and length the Cougars will have on the court.

“We’re not going to be biggest team out on the floor most games, probably,” Barcello said. “So we need to continue to be physical. … One of our main keys going into every game is, ‘Can we beat them out on the defensive boards and can we beat them out on the offensive boards?’

“I think our guards are definitely going to need to step up with that.”

A smaller BYU team will have its work cut out for it Wednesday against Utah State, a team that has the third-best rebounder in the country in Justin Bean. The Aggies senior is not only averaging 12.5 rebounds a game, but scoring 22.1 points per game and shooting 55.6% from the 3-point line.

“A week ago, I would’ve said, ‘Bring it,” Pope said of Bean’s rebounding prowess. “And now I’m like, ‘We’re probably not going to get any rebounds.’ We just have to win a different way now. It’s just where we are as a team.”

USU senior forward Brandon Horvath is the other player who scores in double digits for the Aggies, averaging 13.3 points per game. Guards Brock Miller and Rylan Jones are averaging 9.8 and 9.5 points, respectively.

BYU may be getting one of its key players back soon. Gideon George participated fully in practice on Tuesday, Pope said. He’s a player who, at 6-foot-6, has averaged seven rebounds per game and picked up three blocks.

Traore said every player needs to help each other in boxing out for rebounds and trying to get the occasional block as well.

Despite BYU’s current situation, Aggies coach Ryan Odom understands that playing the Cougars is going to be challenge, especially on the road.

“We have to be on our game,” Odom said. “We know it’s going to be hostile environment.”

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