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Big week for BYU basketball begins with big news

BYU fans cheer on the Cougars during game against the Texas Longhorns Jan. 27, 2024, at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.
BYU fans cheer on the Cougars during game against the Texas Longhorns Jan. 27, 2024, at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. | Brooklynn Kelson, BYU Photo

If BYU assistant basketball coach Chris Burgess is right, the next few days will be very significant for Kevin Young’s program.

“We have four scholarships to fill,” Burgess told the “Y’s Guys” podcast. “We are super positive that we are going to get that down to two to three over the next 72 hours. You are never 100% confident until the ink is on the paper but there are a couple of kids that we’ve had on campus that we think fill big needs in our roster.”

Tuesday morning, ESPN’s senior NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski reported Real Madrid’s Egor Demin has committed to play at BYU. According to Wojnarowski, the 6-9 Russian guard is a projected lottery pick in the 2025 NBA draft. He said Demin will arrive in Provo as one of the most talented recruits in program history.

Since Young’s hiring, the Cougars signed a pair of four-star players including Utah’s 6A Player of the Year Brody Kozlowski from Corner Canyon High and Elijah Crawford from Augusta, Georgia. BYU also added former Utah center Keba Keita from the transfer portal, and now Demin (according to Wojnarowski).

“There is a lot of momentum right now with BYU basketball and BYU Athletics,” Burgess said. “It’s an exciting time. It’s why my family and I got super excited to come back here to Provo. We want to be a part of this again.”

The return

Burgess was an assistant coach for Mark Pope at BYU between 2019-22 before leaving for the same position at Utah, where he spent the last two seasons.

“The decision was always about growth as a coach. What (Craig Smith) allowed me to do with game prep, recruiting and practice has really helped me,” Burgess said. “I feel I’m more prepared now (for a head coaching job) than I have ever been.”

A phone call with Young changed his plans.

“All Kevin Young knows is the NBA. The NBA is so forward thinking, and college basketball is always two to three years behind,” Burgess said. “When he was talking about the staff structure and (sharing) his mindset, I was dying to be a part of it and soak up as much knowledge as I could. At the same time, I felt like I could really help (his) transition to the college game, and not just any college game, but the uniqueness of BYU.”

Lesa Burgess was ready to take the job before her husband was.

“She was very instrumental in terms of being my sounding board and (guiding) me through the thought process of why I should go back to BYU,” Burgess said. “During the time she was being the sounding board, she was wearing a blue Nike hoodie. The only thing for me (about) taking time was the difficult conversations I had to have with the players and coaches in the other locker room. That was the only thing holding me back, but she was all-in.”

The Burgess boys unloaded their red shirts the moment they received word of the job change. The family made a drive to the bookstore and Beckham and Zachary were back in BYU blue the very next day at school.

Keba and Fouss

Shortly after Young hired Burgess, Keita entered the transfer portal.

“BYU fans are going to love him. They are just going to love everything he does,” Burgess said. “He is a lob threat every time down the court. He loves contact. There are not a lot of bigs out there that are seeking contact. They want to avoid it. When Keba steps on the floor, he is seeking contact.”

What Keita didn’t want to do was keep his mentor from Mali, Fousseyni Traore, off the floor.

“He didn’t want to step on Fouss’ toes,” Burgess said. “Fouss said, ‘You bring him to me, and I’ll make sure he understands that I am dying to play with him.’ When Fouss expressed that to Keba, he was all-in.”

Young and his staff are looking for ways to have both Traore and Keita on the floor together.

“Everything is on the table. We were watching some film of coach Young’s offense both in Philadelphia and Phoenix when they played two bigs,” Burgess said. “There are things we can do to get them both on the floor. Coach Young wants to dominate the offensive glass.”

NCAA vs. House

Burgess played at the highest level of college basketball, reaching the Elite Eight in 1998 and the national championship game in 1999 at Duke. The idea of legally paying players wasn’t even a consideration, but if the House vs. NCAA settlement plays out as expected, universities will be on the hook to share revenue with student-athletes.

“When I got into this profession, the advice I received was to adapt. Adapt to change. This is where the college game is going. We have to be able to adapt,” Burgess said. “There is no reason to complain or whine about it or say, ‘Back in my day we did it this way.’ It doesn’t matter. We have to adapt.”

Mark Comer of the Royal Blue, BYU’s official NIL collective, contends the Cougars are among the top 15 programs when it comes to NIL support for men’s basketball. Burgess agrees.

“I am 100% seeing that. It’s so fantastic to see the support, especially when you step away. You step away for a couple years and you understand the brand that BYU is worldwide,” Burgess said. “The support, resources and how much people care, they live and die a lot with BYU athletics. It’s so fun to come back and feel that embrace, love and support.”

Remembering Walton

Burgess grew up in Southern California playing basketball with and against Luke, Nate and Chris Walton, sons of NBA and longtime broadcaster Bill Walton, who died Monday after a long battle with cancer. As an assistant at Utah, Burgess was asked to assist Walton prior to last year’s game at UCLA.

Basketball Hall of Fame legend Bill Walton laughs during a practice session for the NBA All-Star basketball game in Cleveland, Feb. 19, 2022. Walton, who starred for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins before becoming a Basketball Hall of Famer and one of the biggest stars of basketball broadcasting, died Monday, May 27, 2024, the league announced on behalf of his family. He was 71. | Charles Krupa, Associated Press

“I get a call and pick up the phone and hear, ‘Mr. Chris Burgess, this is Bill Walton,’” Burgess remembered. “He wants to go over the whole team, all 15 guys, including the walk-ons. He said, ‘Don’t tell me anything about basketball, tell me a story about them. I want to know about them.’ I was just so impressed.”

The next day during Utah’s shootaround at Pauley Pavilion, Walton approached Burgess while carrying a thick stack of papers loaded with his notes.

“He asked me which (player) is so and so, and I would point to them, and he would spit out the story we had talked about the day before,” Burgess said. “It’s a huge loss to basketball in general. He touched so many lives.”

Dave McCann is a sportswriter and columnist for the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar,” available at deseretbook.com.