PROVO — To say Gavin Baxter was playing his best basketball of the season is not an exaggeration.
Sure, the 6-foot-9 sophomore had a small sample size in his second year with the BYU men’s basketball team. And yes, that sample was made small by a shoulder injury that kept him out of the 2019-20 campaign until Feb. 8.
But after putting in season highs of 5 points, three rebounds and a blocked shot in the Cougars’ 51-50 loss to Saint Mary’s on Jordan Ford’s buzzer-beater in the West Coast Conference Tournament semifinals, Baxter was genuinely feeling like his best days were ahead of him and he’d be able to show that in the NCAA Tournament.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just take away the rest of Baxter’s season, it also took away from him the reason he passed on a redshirt season with the Cougars: a chance to play with Yoeli Childs, Dalton Nixon and the seven seniors of the Class of 2020 that helped make last year so special.
"I wanted to play with the group of guys that we had, the seniors who were ridiculously talented," Baxter explained Wednesday during a Zoom call sponsored by the athletic department. "We had great leadership and a great bond as a team.
"I would’ve done anything to be a part of it, and I’m glad I could make it back."
These days, Baxter’s main exploits involve online schooling, perfecting his two month-long self-isolation beard, and putting his teammates on FaceTime while he finds a hoop, a gym or a weight room for individual workouts. He says the Cougars still meet up as often as they can in unofficial team outings, joining with other local college basketball players for workouts, or just a chance to shoot, in whatever ways local regulations of social distancing will allow.
Even without head coach Mark Pope, his assistants, or strength and conditioning coach Erick Schork, the guys just want to hang out together. That’s part of — maybe even the main reason — why last year’s squad was so special, Baxter says.
"It was the closest thing to a family as you could get for a basketball team," Baxter said. "We were all really tight, really comfortable around each other. But I think one thing that made us really special was our ability not just to bond, but to be open with criticism. The guys took it really well."
That’s a credit to the leadership of the locker room, led by the older senior class — and it’s a role Baxter hopes to fill next year. Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms joined former Arizona transfer Alex Barcello as the only seniors on next year’s BYU team. While Barcello will likely be a team captain before the fall, he’ll probably need some help, namely from the junior class.
Enter Baxter, the former Timpview High standout with a 210-pound build and a 7-foot wingspan who averaged 4.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in 30 games as a freshman in 2018-19 before an offseason injury forced surgery to repair a torn labrum.
The fact that Baxter could return to the court in less than a year is a minor medical miracle. That he could contribute to a team that finished ranked No. 18 in the country is perhaps more of a long shot.
But Baxter never doubted, even when his coaches might have.
"Our initial thoughts were 'you’re crazy,'" BYU assistant coach Chris Burgess admitted with candor. “But as we watched him in practice, we realized that Gavin could really help us. Yes, his year was cut short, but I think Gav wouldn’t take it back. He helped us tremendously down the stretch with his ability to rim protect, grab rebounds, and run the floor.
"There’s no question his best game was against Saint Mary’s in the conference tournament."
The Cougars hope to max last year’s magical run and continue to build on it next year. Baxter will play a key role in those expectations, as will fellow posts Richard Harward, Kolby Lee, Wyatt Lowell and Haarms — a group Burgess likes to call "the best frontcourt in the conference, in my opinion."
It’ll give Pope a chance to mix up his lineups, and Baxter will need to prove he can play both the power forward and center positions — on offense and defense — but it’s a challenge they’re already taking seriously.
"Our expectation is to win," Burgess said. "We want to compete as a Top 25 team, and for a WCC championship. And to do that, we just need to get better every single day.
"When practice starts, we’re going to hold them accountable defensively. We’re going to defense. And I’ll double-down: We’re going to be one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country."
Baxter says he’s up for the challenge. He’ll need to be, really. And because of shortened sophomore season, he knows the secret ingredient, too.
"I feel like we worked harder than anybody in the country," Baxter said. "It paid off for us."