PROVO — For BYU coach Mark Pope, a major focus for his program this season revolves around joy.
That’s right, joy.
Entering his third year at the helm, Pope has experienced having his players deal with missing out on the NCAA Tournament in 2020 due to COVID-19; and last year, he watched them go through all the testing and restrictions due to the pandemic — namely, playing in empty arenas for most of the season.
During player introductions before the Cougars’ exhibition game against Colorado Christian last Thursday, Pope admits that he got a little teary-eyed, seeing so many fans in the stands, cheering, at the Marriott Center and reflecting on what the program, and the world in general, has been through for the past 18 months.
A year ago, Pope and the rest of the coaches in college basketball wore polo shirts rather than suits and ties.
“I’m not trying to make it like (the pandemic is) over but it was so hard. I don’t want to wear a polo (this season). It reminds me of COVID,” Pope said. “I want to get back to a suit. I think we’ll bring back the suit.”
He joked that his wife, Lee Anne, will make his wardrobe decisions “and if it goes wrong you can blame it on her.”
As BYU gets set to tip off the 2021-22 season Tuesday (8 p.m. MST, BYUtv) at home against Cleveland State, Pope wants this team to reach its potential, win games and return to the NCAA Tournament.
But he also wants his players to enjoy the journey.
“He’s been really focused on bringing joy in the gym this year. It’s something we’ve talked about together as a team,” senior guard Alex Barcello said of Pope. “When we hit adversity and nothing is going right in practice, it’s, how can we bring more joy?
“A couple of guys cracked a few jokes in the huddle. We lightened up a little bit. Maybe we’re not going to do that if we’re down two against Saint Mary’s with two minutes left, but the fact that we’re trying to bring joy, I do believe everybody plays better when they’re having fun. I feel like we connect more as a unit and we’re playing our best basketball when we bring joy in the gym.”
Nothing for granted
During the offseason, Pope led discussions with his team about embracing joy and not taking anything for granted. Last season in college basketball, teams had games postponed or canceled. BYU, for example, was on a flight to California to open up West Coast Conference play when Pope learned that the games had been canceled and he had the pilot turn the plane around and return to Provo.
Overall, Pope feels he didn’t handle things as well as he could have in terms of allowing his players to have fun.
“There were so many things consuming us with COVID, newness, challenges, expectations and changing schedules,” he said. “The guys graded my joy in the gym as a D-. We have to bring joy in this gym. It’s been a hallmark of this program since we’ve been together as a staff. We did a poor job with that last year.
“Guys perform better when they enjoy this game. Guys build better relationships in the locker room when they enjoy this game. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard; it doesn’t mean we’re not going to push it like crazy, but it should be fun. These guys are making it fun for each other in a very special way.”
Pope added that he underestimated how much his team relies on the support of the fans, who bring energy and joy.
“Every time you go to a game in the Marriott Center, you walk out, and you can’t hear for the next two days because the place has been so loud,” he said. “All you hear is the joyful sound of the ROC going crazy and people losing their minds. That stays with you. That stays in your heart and soul. You just feed off that as a team.”
This season, Pope is trying to blend a group of seasoned veterans and young players that has its sights on finishing in the top 25 in the final Associated Press poll for the third consecutive year, a feat that’s never been accomplished in program history.
Barcello’s decision to return for one more season in Provo was a huge boon for BYU, of course. He averaged 16.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game a year ago. Barcello shot 52.3% from the floor, including 47.7% from 3-point range. And he has top-level leadership abilities.
“Alex coming back to the team, I’m grateful. That’s my brother for life,” said forward Gideon George. “Playing alongside Alex, you get that confidence. He’s All-American. It’s playing alongside an All-American. He talks and he walks the walk, too.”
While the Cougars posted a 20-7 record and earned a surprising No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, they bowed out meekly in the first round to eventual Final Four team UCLA. That impacted Barcello’s decision to return.
“I’ve got a bitter taste in my mouth right now still from it,” he said. “We had a phenomenal season. With COVID, we battled a lot of adversity. We still had a really great season.”
But the Cougars don’t just want to reach the NCAA Tournament. They want to advance.
Joining Barcello in the backcourt is senior transfer Te’Jon Lucas, another experienced playmaker.
“They’re going to be fun and they’re going to have fun together,” Pope said of Lucas and Barcello. “They are built to be in the same uniform on the same court together. It’s awesome. I’m so excited about those two.”
“Te’Jon is an amazing playmaker. His ability to find the open guy or create an open man is second to none,” said center Richard Harward. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He makes amazing passes. Everyone is going to be astounded at some of the plays he makes. He looks like Magic out there.”
Lohner, like Barcello, was a preseason All-WCC first team selection.
“He’s always been a hard worker. But over the summer, it kind of stepped up a few levels. He’s been in the gym early every day. He’s been staying after practice,” Barcello said of Lohner. “You can tell he just wants to get better. He’s always in the gym, he’s always watching film. I go up to watch film and he’s watching film with coach. It’s amazing, being just a sophomore, to see his work ethic and how much it’s grown over the past year. He was a phenomenal worker last year but it’s just elevated.”
“They are extraordinary talents. They come in and work hard every day,” Barcello said of Traore and Ally Atiki. “You can see the potential that they have. It’s really fun to watch, just how young they are.”
Pope knows he’s counting on a lot of players to help BYU get to where it wants to go.
“We need Atiki to be good, we need Gavin to be good, we need Rich to be good. You think about some of these young men. They have way harder things in their lives than playing in an arena with 20,000 people,” he said. “That’s just the truth. (Traore) is that way. Fousseyni is an extraordinary young man that’s going to do great things on this basketball court and great things in life. He is unfazed by the moment because he’s carrying around weighty things with him that he really believes in. He’s special. He’s going to be tremendous for us.”
Barcello said the newcomers are fitting in well.
“The new pieces that we have, new guys that are transfers, they get it. So do the young guys,” he said. “They see how the other guys are going about it every day. We actually believe in what this coaching staff is preaching to us. I know everybody on our roster wants to win big. That’s what we’re focused on.”
As Pope likes to say, he’s never won a game as BYU’s head coach without Barcello, who transferred in from Arizona in 2019. There’s at least one way that Pope has changed since that time.
“When I first got here, what stood out about him to me was how personable he is with his guys. That has only grown since I’ve been here,” Barcello said. “He’ll pull me in the office sometimes. And I’ll be like, ‘What did I do wrong today in practice?’ But he’s like, ‘How are you doing? What’s going on in your life right now? Can I help you with anything?’
“He’s done a great job to make everybody on the team, no matter how big or small your role is, of feeling loved and appreciated, that you’re valued on this team and this program. That’s what stuck out to me.”
Heading into his third season guiding the Cougar basketball program, Pope knows what the focus is.
Yes, it’s about winning games, capturing championships, advancing in the NCAA Tournament. But as Pope has learned through tough, unconventional times the past couple of years, it’s about much more than that.
“If we’re going to pull every ounce of potential we have out of this team, then there’s got to be joy,” he said. “It’s a foundational principle for us.”