Entering his third season as BYU’s head coach, Mark Pope has turned a program that hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in several years to a program that not just expects to play in the tournament, but also to advance.
Of course, the Cougars weren’t able to play in the Big Dance in his first year because it was canceled due to the pandemic. Last season, BYU earned a No. 6 seed and fell in the first round to eventual Final Four participant UCLA.
But heading into a new season — the Cougars officially tip things off Nov. 9 at home against Cleveland State — expectations have evolved. Within the program, playing in the NCAA Tournament is the standard.
“We’re that caliber of team,” senior guard Alex Barcello said Thursday during media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building.
But BYU wants to take the next step.
“It’s not just getting to the tournament for us. That’s what left a bitter taste in my mouth after last year,” Barcello said. “In 2020 we didn’t get to experience anything. We don’t just want to make it, we want to go far and win. We want to win big. I’d definitely say that’s where this program is right now. We have a lot of motivation. I know the older guys, and me personally, have talked about bringing championships to Provo. And this school deserves that.”
Pope likes to point out that if this year’s team finishes in The Associated Press Top 25, it would mark the first time that’s happened three straight years in the storied history of BYU basketball.
“That’s a huge goal for us,” Pope said, adding, “We need to keep our national relevance.”
When asked about team goals for this season, Barcello didn’t hesitate.
“Championships,” he said.
The Cougars have yet to win a West Coast Conference championship after spending a decade in the league.
Gonzaga, which once again occupies the preseason No. 1 spot in the national preseason polls, will be difficult to dethrone.
Pope said his team is getting closer to accomplishing that.
“We’re knocking on the door hard. … In the process, you just keep pounding on the door and trust that you’re going to break through. This is an unforgiving league. … These guys have their minds squarely set on the goals they’re chasing and we’re hungry to do it. That’s how you have to break through. You try to keep getting better every single day and keep yourself in position, keep knocking on the door until you get those moments where you finally break through.”
In addition to Barcello, BYU returns Caleb Lohner, Trevin Knell, Richard Harward, Spencer Johnson, Gideon George, Gavin Baxter and Hunter Erickson. The Cougars have added transfers Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Lucas as well as freshmen Atiki Ally Atiki, Fousseyni Traore and Nate Hansen.
Barcello has been encouraged by what he’s seen from the way this team has blended together. And the newcomers could help BYU as it makes another run at defeating the ’Zags.
“We have different pieces. Every year you have to adjust to that,” he said. “I’ve been happy with the growth that I’ve seen. Obviously we have to do something differently. But as long as we stay together as a unit, we have the pieces to accomplish that.”
Pope enjoys the process of reinventing this team.
“It feels fascinating on the court and on the clipboard, but where it’s fascinating is in the locker room. That’s where the magic of BYU happens,” he said. “We expect more time trying to assemble these guys in the locker room than we do on the court and it’s probably more fun. All these pieces can fit together in an incredibly powerful, unique way, if we get it right. It’s going to be super dynamic, changing all the time. If we get it right, we have pieces where this could be special. The magic of coaching is getting all of these personalities to mesh, all of these dreams to fit together and all of these agendas to overlap.”
Losing to UCLA in the first round was a painful lesson for Pope and his players. They’ve used that experience not just in terms of motivation, but also in working on specific aspects of the game.
“We just weren’t ready skill-wise and repetition-wise to ring the bell the way we needed to,” Pope said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on our decision-making. We need more playmakers on the court. Last year there were a lot of times where we only had one or two playmakers on the court. We don’t function at our highest level when we only have one or two guys that can make plays on the court. We spent the whole summer, drilling over and over and over, giving our guys reps in decision-making. I do think we’ve gotten better; I think we’re growing.”
The Cougars are hoping that adds up to the kind of success they crave.
Asked about his expectations for this season, Lucas said, “I only have won — winning. It’s what I came here for and it’s what I’m expecting to do and hoping to do. We just want to win as much as possible. Winning takes care of everything.”
In Pope’s third season, one thing remains the same. Many are underestimating the Cougars. But they have lofty goals — capturing championships and advancing deep in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s just the same story it’s been every year,” Barcello said. “People don’t respect us and then we prove them wrong.”