BYU coach Mark Pope had a week to tinker with his starting lineup between a loss at Creighton and Saturday’s 89-71 victory at Weber State.

Pope decided to give 6-foot-9 freshman center Atiki Ally Atiki his first career start and have forward Seneca Knight come off the bench against the Wildcats. 

As it turned out, that was a smart move.

Atiki, who hails from Tanzania, played about 10 minutes and he grabbed three rebounds and scored two points.

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What went into Pope’s decision to start him?

“A lot. It moves our guys back down. Even though Atiki is so young and he doesn’t understand most of the words I say yet, he has got a physical presence. It keeps our four as our four and our three as our three,” Pope explained.

“We have a better chance of competing in those matchups rather than moving our four to five and three to four and two to three and now we’re losing all three of those matchups. He’s growing really fast and (freshman forward Fousseyni Traore) has been great.

“By the time we get to the second half of the season, those guys will feel like season vets and they’re going to belong in that position,” Pope continued. “Right now, we’re force-feeding a little bit to maintain the integrity of the other matchups.”

Weber State Wildcats forward Dyson Koehler (44) is defended by Brigham Young Cougars forward Atiki Ally Atiki (4) and Brigham Young Cougars forward Gideon George (5) in Ogden on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. BYU won 89-71. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Alex Barcello, who scored a game-high 23 points, including 5 of 6 3-pointers, against Weber State, liked what he saw from Atiki. 

“He was so happy. Like Fouss, these guys come in and they work so hard every day. It’s fun to be part of a team where you have guys that are freshmen that are trying to absorb everything,” he said. “I thought he was really good tonight. There’s a lot of things he can work on but he knows that. The ceiling is so high for him and he has so much potential. I’m so happy for him.”

Knight, meanwhile, returning to his role as a reserve, made 6 of 10 shots, including 2 of 3 from 3-point range, and finished with 14 points to go along with four rebounds and three assists.

“I was really proud of Seneca. It’s because he started the last four games and he played probably his most efficient offensive game in the last game,” Pope said. “My answer was to bring him off the bench. He showed a ton of maturity in not letting that affect him at all. He sat on the bench for the first three minutes and then put together a really remarkable first half.

“His physicality and his size and his diligence with his defensive assignment, all those things I was super impressed with how he responded to what might send some guys sideways. He was so mature. That’s what a winner is. That’s what a champion is. I’ve been really proud of his growth.”

Knight, who previously played at San Jose State, is feeling more comfortable with his role on the team and within the system. 

“He’s thrown into some positions that he wasn’t used to. There’s a learning process with that,” Barcello said. “He’s so talented and so fun to play with. He’s so unselfish. That’s just a guy that you want to go to battle with and have on your team.”

BYU travels to Honolulu this week for the Diamond Head Classic. The Cougars will play three games in the Islands, including Wednesday against South Florida, Thursday against either Vanderbilt or Hawaii. The eight-team tournament wraps up on Christmas Day. The other participating teams are Stanford, Wyoming, Liberty and Northern Iowa.