The Sophomore Forward was cleared by BYU Basketball and doctors to play the rest of the season.
Coming into the 2019-2020 season there were three really big hurdles for BYU to get over: The suspension of Yoeli Childs, the potential injury of Zac Seljaas and likely losing Gavin Baxter for the entire season. Most, including myself, believed that this combination would keep BYU from having a special season.
That didn't happen.
Seljaas recovered quicker than expected, the Cougars somehow survived and even put themselves in the NCAA conversation without Childs, and to this point not having Baxter has not been a huge issue.
To the surprise of fans, yesterday it was released that Gavin Baxter has recovered from his injuries quicker than expected and is actually cleared to play. It is sort of a gift that nobody was expecting, but now BYU has to decide whether or not to open it. On the surface it seems like an easy choice, but is it?
Why to Sit Baxter
There are actually quite a few reasons to not let Baxter play this season, and depending on how you view it, it may even outweigh the reasons to play him.
1. Losing a Red Shirt
Baxter has come out and said that he plans on only playing until he gets his diploma which would mean that he wouldn't use his red shirt even if it was available. Despite this, it isn't hard to find examples of players who have one plan but end up coming back for another season (Yoeli Childs). If Baxter is a borderline NBA pick after his senior season, he may wish he did have a red shirt to use to solidify his pro prospects.
2. Team Chemistry/Rotation
This is not a knock against Baxter and his chemistry with the team, but the team is playing great without him and they have a nice rotation going right now. Baxter is the kind of player that could really throw a wrench in that. There is no doubt that he would be a contributor and play maker, but would it be worth the risk of potentially derailing the current system that is going? If BYU did want to burn his red shirt, they would almost have to put him as a starter to justify it, or at worst a first off the bench kind of player, otherwise, his impact wouldn't be worth the pain or him losing a red shirt.
The doctors have said that Baxter is cleared to play, but things are never just black and white clear on these things. Look at Zach Wilson this season who despite being "healthy" never actually appeared to be 100%. Does the team really want to risk another injury to a player who this year would be a likely decent contributor, but next year is expected to be a top three player?
Reasons to play Baxter
1. Baxter wants to play
In the world off college sports where transferring to another school is easier than counting to ten, coaches have to keep their players happy. Baxter wants to play and has made it clear that after he graduates he is leaving, regardless of whether he has an extra year of eligibility. Again, that can change, but for the here and now, that is his plan and not playing that could only cause issues with his relationship with the team.
2. BYU can take a loss, sort of
The biggest goal of BYU is to get to the NCAA Tournament. Getting a good seed is extra. There is still enough time this season to find a nice rotation with Baxter in the lineup and nobody would believe that BYU would not be better in the NCAA without him. But to get him into a rotation it will take some growing pains for the team. That may mean losing to a decent San Francisco or Santa Clara team. Losing to those teams would hurt their seeding, but would unlikely kick the Cougars out of the tournament. Personally, I like BYU's chances as a 10 seed with Baxter over a 7 seed without him.
3. 2020 seems like the "Once in a Decade" team
While I do believe that Mark Pope is going to be a great coach for the Cougars, there is no denying that this will probably be the most talented team that the BYU Basketball has for a few seasons. Naturally, without TJ Haws, Jake Toolson, Yoeli Childs or Dalton Nixon next season the Cougars may struggle. 2020 seems like the year for this team to make a postseason run, maybe even to Sweet Sixteen. The one weakness of BYU is their defense and rebounding, something that Baxter excels at. If he and Childs both play all season, the Cougars likely only have two losses right now to Gonzaga and Kansas.
Also, BYU Basketball is one injury or one forward in foul trouble away from having a really tough time against any Tournament team either in the WCC or NCAA Tournament.
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Aren't you glad you don't have to make the final decision on whether he plays? Both sides have valid arguments, however if I made the call I would play him as to avoid the "What ifs" had he played.