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Gavin Baxter and the ‘this is the year’ of BYU basketball’s season

Gavin Baxter has returned for BYU basketball. Does it mean something? Probably!

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

The most exciting three minutes of BYU basketball came Saturday.

That’s not to discount times Yoeli Childs has single-handedly changed the makeup of a game in the post, or times when TJ Haws, like against UCLA, sliced and diced up a defense. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say the most exciting three minutes for the future of BYU basketball came Saturday.

Sophomore forward Gavin Baxter grabbed one rebound and drew one foul in three minutes of action.

And BYU is ecstatic.

Rewind to late September when VTF broke the news that Baxter had suffered a shoulder injury that was expected to make him miss all of the 2019-20 season.

Then rewind more to, for a snapshot, two games against Loyola Marymount in his freshman season. At home, Baxter shot 10 of 14 for 25 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a big win.

Three weeks later, he helped the Cougars finish a comeback at LMU. Down four with six minutes left, Baxter grabbed an offensive board and scored. LMU then got three offensive rebounds on its next possession before Baxter finally secured a stop with a board.

At the other end, Baxter tied the game with a wicked spin move and dunk. BYU went on to win 70-62 and Baxter was 6 of 6 for 13 points and added seven rebounds, two steals and two blocks.

So what does that have to do with BYU basketball in 2020?

Baxter’s return to the team signifies that he, his teammates and his coaches feel the same way about their season to date, and its potential still, as hopeful fans do — that there’s a chance to do something special.

For several seasons running, it felt like “well hot damn if BYU could just shoot the 3 at a mildly above-average clip, they could have something.” For three straight seasons, BYU hovered around 34% as a team, which ranged anywhere from 187th to, last season, 240th nationally.

Now, BYU is the best 3-point shooting team in the country, firing a ridiculous 42.3% against Division I opponents. Every rotational player is at 34.1% (Zac Seljaas) and above, up to, among high-volume shooters, Jake Toolson’s outrageous 49% on 145 attempts. And if needed, big men Yoeli Childs (57.1%) and Kolby Lee (41.7%) can step out and knock one down with great effectiveness.

That ability alone could put BYU in position to make a tournament run, especially since the Cougars increasingly show a willingness to use that accuracy in higher volume.

The Cougars also shoot a top-10 percentage nationally on 2-pointers and don’t turn the ball over. They do a good job limiting opponents on the offensive glass and from the 3-point line.

And, BYU is the ninth-most experienced team in the country. Right now, it’s rated as the 16th best team in Ken Pomeroy’s formula and 22nd in the NCAA’s NET rating.

So it probably does mean something that Baxter, who diligently worked to rehab and be able to return this season if desired, has decided to give up his entire sophomore season of eligibility for six regular season games, and whatever comes after them.

“I think Gavin is really going to help us, and help us in a big way,” head coach Mark Pope said after Saturday’s short appearance. “He’s going to help us win games.”

In nearly every other circumstance, I’d argue for a player like Baxter to definitely not use eligibility in this situation. But the “whatever comes after them” could be a rare opportunity for this team and Baxter not only could be part of it, but could elevate BYU one more step.

“We are a freaking dangerous team right now. We are dangerous,” Pope said.

It’s common among BYU fans to play what-if over some of BYU’s early losses to San Diego State and Boise State regarding Childs’ bogusly long suspension. But if you allow yourself to imagine a healthy Baxter available in Childs’ stead, they may still win those games without the star anyway.

When Yoeli returned, he supernova’d out of the gate at Utah but eventually lost steam, got in foul trouble, and Utah won in overtime.

Does that happen if a player like Baxter — a 6-foot-9 set of arms on springs — is available in those non-Yoeli minutes?

BYU has been playing with a standard 9-foot ceiling for several seasons running. With Childs battling through injury and suspension to be on the court, it seemed BYU entered a 14-foot great room. Does Baxter push that up to a grand 20 feet?

That’s the prospect the Cougars wants to find out, and one Baxter is willing to use a year of eligibility for.