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‘Weird middle ground’: How Mark Pope is putting short-handed team through a retooling process

Player health issues have BYU coach rethinking strategy moving forward

BYU coach Mark Pope calls out a play against Creighton at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., Dec. 11, 2021.
BYU coach Mark Pope calls out a play during a game against Creighton at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.
Matt Gade, for the Deseret News

In the moments following BYU’s shocking 72-65 overtime loss to Utah Valley University on Dec. 1, coach Mark Pope knew adjustments needed to be made.

He had no other choice.

During that game, forward Gavin Baxter suffered a season-ending knee injury, damaging the Cougars’ depth in the post even further. Center Richard Harward hasn’t played this season due to a cardiovascular issue. Meanwhile, forward Gideon George was out with an illness.

“We’re going to have to change some things. And we will,” Pope said after the loss to the Wolverines. “We’re going to have to get better a new way right now. And we will.”

And there was a sense of urgency because BYU had a road game at Missouri State. So a team that had been winning primarily with defense and rebounding had to change.

Pope went to a smaller lineup, making Seneca Knight a starter, and the Cougars started playing at a faster tempo.

“We’ve been focused on more pace and more space,” Pope said. “We’re retooling ourselves. We’ll figure it out. These guys are winners so they know how to fight and compete and win.

“We’re approaching the game a little bit different right now. … The first six games of the season, it was sure fun to be like, ‘I’m actually not worried about anything tonight because we’re just going to get so many rebounds, we’re going to win.’ … Now we actually have to accomplish some things. That streamlining change toward being smaller on the floor is well underway.”

Those changes paid off as BYU beat Missouri State, then defeated Utah State on Dec. 8, 82-71.

Against the Aggies, BYU hit 11 3-pointers and had 19 assists on 26 made baskets.

“I love teams that can win more than one way,” Pope said. “This team has proven that they can.”

But with each week and each game, the Cougars are making adjustments. An 83-71 loss to Creighton on Dec. 11 showed that BYU remains a work in progress.

“We’re kind of in this weird middle ground where we’re trying to figure out if we’re going to play small or go a little bigger,” Pope said.

His players are discovering new roles and doing whatever they can to help the Cougars win games.

“Everybody’s got to step up to fill the void of missing Gav and Richard right now while Richard’s getting healthy,” said guard Alex Barcello.

Forward Caleb Lohner, for example, is shooting only 33% from the floor. He missed his first 13 3-point attempts to start last season and he missed his first 15 3-point attempts this season.

But Lohner is averaging 7.0 rebounds per game and he’s making an impact in several areas.

Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner (11) battles his way to the basket as BYU’s Caleb Lohner (33) defends.
Creighton’s Ryan Kalkbrenner (11) battles his way to the basket as BYU’s Caleb Lohner (33) defends during a game at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.
Matt Gade, for the Deseret News

“I’m actually so proud of Caleb. We’ve put so much on his shoulders. You take Caleb Lohner out of this mix and we have no chance. We have no chance to win this game (against Utah State),” Pope said. “His numbers may not be jumping off the page at you … but people that know basketball, they look at our team and are like, ‘These guys would have no chance without Caleb.’ He’s carrying so much of a load on the glass, taking up space, running the floor.”

Pope explained that two of Trevin Knell’s three 3-pointers against USU were a result of Lohner moving to the rim, sucking the defense in.

“The impact that he’s having on this team right now is incredible,” Pope said about Lohner. “He’s making a massive difference for us and we need him right now.”

Knight, who scored a season-high 13 points in the loss to Creighton, is playing forward after spending his career playing as a guard.

“He’s learning us. That just takes time. He’s such a good, willing player that sometimes you make a comment and he goes that direction so far and takes it so to heart that you have to walk back the direction you went in,” Pope said. “That’s something we’ve learned about him in this process.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable with us every day. I’m also learning how to use him, too. I have to learn to be a better coach with him. We’re going in a good direction. I expect that will continue in a positive trajectory and the whole season we’ll keep getting to know each other better.”

Two of BYU’s biggest players, 6-foot-6 Fousseyni Traore and 6-foot9 Atiki Ally Atiki, are both freshmen.

“In my mind, with Gav being gone and Rich not being back in the foreseeable future, for some reason that changes the way this game feels for me a lot because I don’t have Gavin to protect Fouss and Atiki,” Pope said. “It has made me feel like the identity of our team is going to be a smaller team the rest of the year.

“We’re going to shift everybody up to protect the rookie bigs. So we’ve been focused on more pace and more space. We’ll probably do more switching. We’ll probably send a second player to the ball defender more often. That can be a super fun way to play, too. You can win games playing that way, too.”

Traore is averaging 7.4 points and six rebounds per game. He’s learning and developing with every game. He hit all eight of his free throws against Utah State, including four in the final minute to help seal the win.

“Fouss didn’t know what he didn’t know for the first six games. And then all of a sudden he knew what he didn’t know,” Pope said. “And then (against USU) he forgot what he didn’t know. It’s really great when you have a rookie big at the end of a game who’s getting a catch and knowing they’re going to foul and not passing because he wants to go bang these free throws. He’s a savvy vet for a rook from Mali, I’m telling you. He’s a special player.”

Meanwhile, the guards are being counted on to focus more on rebounding.

BYU’s Alex Barcello shoots between pair of Creighton players during game in Sioux Falls, S.D., Dec. 11, 2021.
BYU’s Alex Barcello shoots between a pair of Creighton players during game at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021.
Matt Gade, for the Deseret News

“Missing Gavin the rest of the year is a huge bummer for us,” Barcello said. “He’s such a great player and he’s such an offensive and defensive threat, the way he alters guys’ shots and can rebound the ball,” Barcello said. “The guards are going to have to step up to help our bigs because we’re not going to be the biggest team out on the floor in most games. We need to continue to be physical. Our physicality is going to help us the most as we head down this stretch of non-conference games.”

Guard Hunter Erickson has received considerably more playing time after Baxter’s injury. He made his first 3-pointer of the season against Utah State.

“He’s a really talented player. He can shoot the ball really well,” Barcello said of Erickson. “He can help us a lot on the defensive end, as we saw at Missouri State. He was able to protect the middle. I’m looking forward to watching his career.”

Pope praised Erickson as well.

“One of the hardest things in all of sports is staying ready. He’s been in that process for a year and a half. He comes and fights every day in practice,” he said. “He’s a really good player that’s on the cusp of being in this rotation heavy or being in this rotation really light. It’s a tribute to him for how hard he’s worked to stay ready. He was able to step into a hostile environment against a terrific team (Missouri State) in a desperate moment for our team and perform really, really well. He was super solid.”

No, BYU is not the same team as it was at the start of the season. But the Cougars remain determined to reach their goals by playing a different brand of basketball. Whatever that needs to be.