PORTLAND, Ore. — To call BYU’s early-season basketball schedule ambitious would be an understatement.
The Cougars opened with a pair of 2021 NCAA Tournament teams in Cleveland State and San Diego State last week. BYU earned a pair of hard-fought wins.
But another tough challenge looms Tuesday (8 p.m. MST, ESPN) when the Cougars take on No. 12 Oregon at the Moda Center in Portland as part of the Phil Knight Invitational. The Ducks won the Pac-12 regular-season championship last season and lost to USC in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
It’s an arduous three-game stretch to tip off the season and it’s just what coach Mark Pope designed for his team — a chance to develop team chemistry, a chance to be battle-tested before West Coast Conference play begins, and a chance to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume.
“I’m going to get fired soon because all I want to do is try and be as challenged as best as we can, as fast as we can,” Pope said. “It’s not smart to schedule this (Cleveland State) game first. It’s not smart to schedule San Diego State second and it’s not smart to schedule Oregon third. But we’re going to do it. Who knows if we’ll make it through or not. But it’s going to show us how we need to get better. We’re so anxious to know how we need to get better.”
Pope has learned a lot about his team during the first week of the season. For example, against San Diego State, in front of a crowd of 16,470, the Cougars didn’t shoot well from distance but they still managed to outrebound an athletic Aztecs squad and make big plays down the stretch in a 66-60 victory.
“I love the fact that we can be 4 of 18 from the 3-point line, with a bunch of 3s that we like, and still beat an unbelievably talented, long, athletic, top-30 team,” Pope said of SDSU.
Guard Alex Barcello, who scored 17 points against the Aztecs, is looking forward to seeing how the Cougars measure up against another quality team like Oregon.
“It’s a great opportunity. It’s a top-15 team right now. They’re long, they’re athletic, they’re really talented. It’s going to test us,” he said. “But we’re confident going into every game. We’re still trying to build that chemistry. We’ve got a lot of new faces. There’s a lot of young guys. But it’s going to be a great opportunity come Tuesday.”
Guard Te’Jon Lucas, who had 13 points and five assists against the Aztecs, loves playing big-time opponents.
“This is what I came here for and what Alex came back for — to play the best of the best and try to compete with everybody at the top in the country and put them on notice,” he said. “We’ve played two straight NCAA Tournament teams and it doesn’t get easier. We play Oregon Tuesday so we have to get to work.”
Oregon’s two leading scorers are guards Will Richardson (19 ppg), who has made 8 of 13 from 3-point range, and Jacob Young (16 ppg). Forward Quincy Guerrier, a transfer from Syracuse, averages a team-high nine rebounds per game.
The Ducks boast four players that stand at least 6-foot-11, including 7-foot center Isaac Johnson, the younger brother of BYU guard Spencer Johnson.
Pope knows that Oregon, led by coach Dana Altman, creates nightmares for opponents.
“I know they’re really, really good,” he said. “And I know they have like 10 7-foot-2 kids that have 8-11 wingspans. They really can score and they confuse you with their matchup zone.”
The Ducks opened the season with lopsided wins over Texas Southern and SMU. But they realize that BYU should provide a stiffer challenge.
“Coach is doing a good job staying on us, making sure we’re prepared for any game, making sure we don’t take our opponents lightly,” junior-college transfer Rivaldo Soares said. “Texas Southern and SMU are two good teams.”
Pope acknowledged that preparing for teams early in the season, when opponents don’t have much game film for his team and coaching staff to study, presents another challenge.
“For us, we’re so scout-heavy, it makes us feel super naked. We rely so much on it and we feel like we’re really good at diagnosing. It’s a huge part of what we do,” he said. “And even if you have a practice or game film — the first three or four weeks of the season, going into every game, we feel a little on edge because we rely on that so much.
“You have to trust your principles. You’ve got to be great at your principles and your principles have to carry the day when you can’t cheat with the scout. It’s a super-fun challenge. It does make me feel jittery. It’s something we face every year and it’s something every team has to deal with. We’ve had good success so far.”
Oregon leads the all-time series 14-9 against BYU. The two teams last met during the 2013-14 season, when the Ducks beat the Cougars 100-96 in overtime in Eugene. Later that season, Oregon beat BYU again 87-66 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
The Cougars have their sights set on returning to the NCAA Tournament in March. Playing games like this one against Oregon is expected to help them get there.
“We did this for a purpose. There’s a reason behind this schedule,” Pope said. “Oregon’s going to be a massive challenge and we appreciate that, for sure. Cleveland State and San Diego State were massive challenges and now we get Oregon. Let’s go. I have a lot of faith in these guys.”