SALT LAKE CITY – Rejoice, all you college basketball fans residing in Utah. The deadline for underclassmen in college to withdraw their names from consideration for the 2019 NBA Draft came and went last week with BYU forward Yoeli Childs, Utah State center Neemias Queta, Weber State guard Jerrick Harding and Utah forward Donnie Tillman all announcing they had withdrawn their names from the draft and intended to return their respective programs. At first glance the news is positive for the fans in the stands, but digging deeper, it’s a win for all involved in a sport that once ruled the state.
I’m not suggesting that come early November fans will be filling the various hoops venues around the state to capacity, especially with football entering it’s final month of the regular season and the Utes, Cougars and Aggies, along with the Wildcats and Thunderbirds, all harboring ambitions of successful seasons on the gridiron. What I am saying, though, is that the 2019-20 college basketball season could be the renaissance that college hoops fans locally have hoped for for some time.
Once a powerhouse on a national level, the University of Utah has not sniffed March Madness for three years despite the Pac-12 being way down. Their archrival to the south, BYU, is riding a four year drought with national superpower Gonzaga dominating the West Coast Conference. Weber State is considered among the elite in the Big Sky Conference but has a three year drought of their own.
Utah State, who ended a seven-year tournament drought this past March after earning an eight-seed before losing to 9-seed Washington, was a surprise to many who thought new head coach Craig Smith might need a year or two to get adjusted to the Mountain West Conference & his inherited roster. Smith and company proved all of us wrong with their MWC regular season and tournament championships.
With Neemias Queta and Sam Merrill in Logan, the Aggies have as potent of an inside-outside combination as you’ll find at the collegiate level. Joined by returning players Brock Miller, Abel Porter, Quinn Taylor & Justin Bean, and bolstered by the arrivals of Alphonso Anderson & Sean Bairstow, the Aggies should be the preseason favorite in the Mountain West Conference and expectations will be raised as to what seed they can land in the tournament.
“It was a great experience to be involved with the NBA Draft combine and it really helped me to know where I need to improve,” Queta said in a release sent out by the school. “We have a really good team coming back and I’m excited to get stronger and get better.”
The question with the talent returning next season is if BYU, Utah or Weber State can join the Aggies in the Big Dance.
Mark Pope, who is taking over for the retired Dave Rose at BYU, got an immediate upgrade to his roster with the transfer of Jake Toolson, the reigning WAC player of the year, from UVU. His “relentless” efforts in recruiting Childs to return to Provo for his senior season paid off in shocking fashion. One source close to the situation said that up until just days before the deadline last Wednesday, Childs was dead set on going pro.
“I’m going to be able to be a pro for a really long time, but I only have one more year to do something special here,” Childs said during a press conference following his announcement that he was returning to BYU. “I owe it to this school, I owe it to my teammates, to come back and do something amazing. I just want to go all out and to make something special happen for BYU.”
Most BYU fans would say a return to the NCAA Tournament would qualify as a “special” season. Toolson and Childs, along with the scoring punches that guys like T.J. Haws, Jesse Wade, Conner Harding and Gavin Baxter can add on any given night should give BYU one of their most potent lineups in some time. Can BYU join Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, who are expected to be preseason Top 25 teams, in making the West Coast Conference a three-bid league next year?
Donnie Tillman’s return to Larry Krystkowiak’s program ensures that the Runnin’ Utes young nucleus of talent will continue to grow together for at least another season. Joined by Both Gach and Timmy Allen, can the incoming recruiting class for the Running Utes, led Rylan Jones and Mikael Jantunen, bolster the lineup and lead the Utes to the upper echelon of the Pac-12? Traditionally a top-three or four finish in the conference means you’re dancing.
(Editors note – since publication Donnie Tillman has announced he is taking a leave of absence from the Utah basketball program and will not play for the Utes during the 2019-20 season)
With Jerrick Harding’s return to Weber State, the Wildcats will return their leading two scorers along with Cody John next season. With expected improvement from Caleb Nero and Israel Barnes that should help balance the scoring load in Ogden. The question for Randy Rahe’s squad is if Dima Zdor, Donatas Kupsas and Michael Kozak can step up with the graduation of Brekkott Chapman and Zach Braxton as well as if the team can avoid the injury bug that has plagued them of late.
Will the return of these players immediately result in tens of thousands of fans piling into their respective teams’ arenas to cheer on their team? Probably not right away, but to quote the late Al Davis, “just win, baby” and they will come. Fans love a winner and the talent pool in the state entering the 2019-20 basketball season is as deep as it has been in quite some time. Will it yield multiple berths into the 2020 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament? No one knows that answer at the moment but the return of so much talent should have Utes, Cougars, Aggies and Wildcats fans dreaming of dancing come next March.