PROVO — A month or so into his new job as BYU’s basketball coach, Mark Pope is relentlessly embracing the challenge that faces him and his staff.
“Every day, I feel really blessed to be here,” he said Thursday during a roundtable interview session with a few local reporters. “We have a sense of the monumental task we have ahead of us in so many different ways. At the same time, it’s so fantastically exhilarating and really humbling, too.”
And he has a bright vision for the future of the program.
“I think we can do everything here that you want to do in basketball. I really do," Pope said. "I’m just dumb enough to think that we can accomplish everything that you dream about accomplishing in basketball and that we can do it right here."
A few weeks ago, Pope hired his assistants — Chris Burgess, Cody Fueger and Nick Robinson — and they’ve been working hard in recruiting (including a long trip to Africa); solidifying the roster heading into next season; planning the team’s trip to Italy in August; finishing up the non-conference schedule; and overseeing players’ skill development.
At his introductory press conference, Pope talked about casting a wide net in terms of recruiting, and recently Pope and his staff traveled all the way to Africa to meet with the parents of a potential recruit.
“Two weeks ago, we traveled 27 hours for a 90-minute home visit and then 27 hours back,” Pope said. “That’s not an anomaly. That’s what you do in recruiting. If you recruit long enough and hard enough and relentlessly enough, you’re going to end up with guys that can really help you win.”
Also in recent weeks, two signees from last November, Bernardo Da Silva and Shengzhe Li, were both released from their national letters of intent. Meanwhile, UVU transfers Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell and American Fork High’s Trey Stewart, a former UVU recruit, have signed with the Cougars. Harward and Lowell will be sidelined this season due to NCAA transfer rules, while Stewart will join the program after he serves a two-year mission to England for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Another former UVU player, guard Jake Toolson, the reigning WAC Player of the Year, has announced he will join the Cougars this fall as a grad transfer, though it's not official yet.
Of the 13 scholarships available, the Cougars have one remaining for next season. Pope said a lot could happen to the roster between now and the start of the season due in part to the transfer portal. How close is Pope to solidifying his first roster?
“I think we’re pretty close. In college basketball now, these rosters stay pretty dynamic. It’s going to stay pretty dynamic for a lot of schools until August, which is new and interesting,” Pope said. “This (transfer) portal, I don’t have a commentary on whether it’s good or bad; it just is. These transfer rules now, they’ve helped make roster so dynamic that you could make roster moves in the spring that actually foster dynamic roster movement in June, July and August, depending on guys coming and going."
Last year’s leading scorer and rebounder, Yoeli Childs, announced in April his decision to forgo his final year of eligibility to pursue a professional career. Childs didn’t get an invitation to the NBA Combine and likely won’t be drafted, though those close to him have said that he is not returning to BYU. If Childs were to come back, he has until May 29.
“He’s been really straightforward with me since the first day that I took the job that he’s really committed to pursuing this and figuring things out," Pope said. "I’m excited for him to go through this process and see where it takes him."
No matter what happens with the roster, Pope is confident that his team, which will feature five seniors, can be successful next season.
“If it ends up that our roster is really essentially what it is now, how exciting for us to try to be creative and try to listen to what the game can teach us about how we should play and figure it out. I’m not scared of a roster that might not be the traditional roster that I would have masterminded and put together," he said. "Especially when that roster has a bunch of seniors on it that are a little hungry and have a little bit of chip on their shoulder. Seniors are magic. They can do special things. They can be maybe more ‘all-in’ than you can as a freshman, sophomore or junior. We’ll manage those things. We’re doing our best to forge ahead and build this roster and once we’re done, we’ll put a product on the floor that we’re really proud of and excited about. It might be a little non-traditional, but it’s going to be great.”
Pope is looking forward to taking his team to Italy in August for a series of exhibition games. It’s an opportunity for Pope and his players to get to know each other better. The NCAA will allow the team to hold official practices in early August ahead of that trip.
“I’m not going to have this whole team together a single day all summer until we get to August, until we do our real practices,” Pope said. “I want it to be individual skill work right now where they’re working in small groups. We’ll talk about their game and introduce some of the foundational, bedrock things that we believe in.”
Next year’s regular season schedule includes the Maui Invitational (other teams participating are Dayton, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan State, UCLA, Virginia Tech and Chaminade); a road game at Houston and home games against UNLV, San Diego State and Nevada.
“It’s a great schedule,” Pope said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Pope also said BYU is working on a "long-term" series with Pope’s former employer, UVU.
Meanwhile, Pope is still looking to hire a director of basketball operations and video coordinator.
“I want to see if we can bring in some people that can bring a fresh newness and expertise to our staff and to this program,” Pope said. “We’re taking our time and talking to a lot of people in a lot of different corners.”