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As Mark Pope returns to UVU, why BYU is enjoying its success while feeling urgency

BYU (6-0) is ranked No. 12 in The Associated Press poll — the first time it’s been ranked in the top 15 before January in its history. And it’s the program’s highest ranking since Pope became the head coach.

Brigham Young Cougars celebrate their win in Salt Lake City against the University of Utah.
Brigham Young Cougars celebrate their win in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. BYU won 75-64.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — BYU coach Mark Pope’s past and present are colliding in compelling ways these days.

As Pope returns to Utah Valley University, where he spent four seasons before taking the helm of the Cougars, he and his team are celebrating what’s been accomplished already this season.

BYU (6-0) is ranked No. 12 in The Associated Press poll — the first time it’s been ranked in the top 15 before January in its history.

And it’s the program’s highest ranking since Pope became the head coach.

When the rankings were revealed last Monday, how did the Cougars acknowledge their No. 12 standing?

“We celebrated it,” Pope said. “Anytime you do something that is not done all the time, you have this gift of getting to put it in your pocket.”

Now, BYU is looking to put another in-state victory in its pocket.

Fresh off a 75-64 victory at Utah last Saturday, the Cougars visit UVU Wednesday (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv) in a contest that will be emotional for Pope and his staff, including assistant coaches Chris Burgess and Cody Fueger, who followed Pope to Provo from Orem.

“I’ve got a lot of love for Utah Valley. We fought, bled and sweated there for four years. We still laugh about things that happened as we tried to find our way as a staff,” Pope said. “We had some incredible young men compete for us in our four years there.

“It’s a really special place. It’s also a great university and it’s serving this community incredibly well. It’s filled a space that was desperately needed here. I’ve got a ton of love for it, and I have incredible memories there. I’ll always be grateful for Utah Valley.”

UVU (6-1) has won six consecutive games, including a road victory over a program BYU is very familiar with — Pepperdine of the West Coast Conference.

The Wolverines’ 6-foot-11 center Fardaws Aimaq averages a team-high 20.3 points and 13.7 rebounds per game.

He ranks No. 2 in the country in rebounding.

“He’s a special talent. He’s a great player. He challenges you in a ton of different ways,” Pope said. “He’s super patient in the post, he’s skilled, he’s second in the nation in rebounding.

“With guys like that, your best hope is trying to take away a little bit. That’s what we’ll try to do.”

While Pope is returning to UVU for the first time for a game since taking the BYU job in 2019, the Wolverines have some former Cougars on their roster, including Connor Harding, Blaze Nield and Colby Leifson.

Harding, who played for BYU last season before transferring to UVU, is averaging 11.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

He’s also shooting 50% from 3-point range.

“Connor’s been in the system here and the point guard (Nield),” said BYU guard Te’Jon Lucas, who is coming of back-to-back 18-point games in the last two outings.

“They know what we run, and we know their game as well. It’s going to be defense and rebounding and taking care of the ball. That’s going to be the main focus.”

The Cougars should get a good challenge from UVU, which is exactly why they schedule contests like these.

“I love these in-state games. I think they’re really good for us. They test us in amazing ways,” Pope said. “You love these games because they give you insight into who you are and how you need to get better.”

As well as things are going for BYU right now, Pope said this team is far from its potential, but he added that it’s important for his players to enjoy the milestones that they’re achieving.

“This game is unforgiving. … For us, we’re trying to grab anything we can to build our guys’ belief in what we’re doing and help motivate our guys in a positive way,” Pope said. “The last time we were ranked in the top 15 in November was 1972. I was 2 months old the last time that we did this at BYU.

“These guys should celebrate that because it doesn’t come around. I mean, it’s 50 years. That’s crazy. If you can’t celebrate things that happen every 50 years, you’re going to miss it. I don’t want these guys to miss it. … I don’t think it’s making our guys soft or full of themselves. I think it’s making them more urgent. That’s the hope — that it makes them more urgent.”

The players love this approach.

“He loves to talk about history and current stats,” guard Spencer Johnson said of Pope. “Being ranked No. 12 right now in the country, and being undefeated and we’ve played some really, really good teams.

“He keeps talking about how we’re No. 12 but that’s not where we want to be. We still want to take steps forward. It creates an urgency that we can still get better.”

Added Lucas, a transfer who previously played at Illinois and Milwaukee: “We all came for more than being ranked 12th and being 6-0. We still have to keep getting better every day and we have a lot to accomplish.

“The good thing is, we get to learn from wins. … Winning takes care of everything. I can’t complain being No. 12 right now and 6-0. I’ve never been ranked this high. I’m excited because we’re winning.”