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How Mark Pope’s pre-WCC dance moves are working for BYU

After losing Gavin Baxter and Richard Harward, Cougars coach had to reinvent his team

BYU coach Mark Pope congratulates Te’Jon Lucas (3) and Alex Barcello as they exit the floor after defeating Utah State.
BYU coach Mark Pope congratulates Te’Jon Lucas (3) and Alex Barcello as they exit the floor after defeating Utah State at the Marriott Center on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. BYU won 82-71.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Mark Pope’s December coaching dance has been inventive.

His behind-the-scenes role to maintain team chemistry has been Christopher Lloyd in “Back to the Future.”

A month ago Pope was riding high after wins over San Diego State and Oregon, enjoying a top-20 ranking, 7-0 record with dominating rebounding, elevated guard play, and ball-swatting artistry.

Then Dec. 1 happened.

That’s the day he lost elite shot-blocker, rim protector and dunker Gavin Baxter — on the heels of losing big man Richard Harward to an undefined heart issue.

That’s the day BYU lost to Utah Valley University in Orem.

This month is the juncture in which the Cougars lost three games in the span of 23 days by going on the road for eight of nine games but included wins over in-state rivals Utah, Utah State and Weber State.

In this span, Pope has seen his team struggle at the 3-point line, recover, struggle again. He’s seen lineup changes and a struggle to find a consistent post presence.

Pope somehow coached the Cougars past Liberty in Honolulu when his star guard Alex Barcello was struggling for the first time this season with no explanation why. In Hawaii, Barcello struggled to finish, couldn’t elevate, lacked energy and his shot had abandoned him. He had nine points on 2-of-5 shooting, his lowest output of the season in 23 minutes in the win over Liberty. In the loss to Vanderbilt, he wasn’t himself at all.

Let’s face it, Pope’s fortunes are tied to Barcello. He is BYU’s engine. How Barcello goes, that’s how the Cougars will go in West Coast Conference play.

Yet, the Cougars head toward the league opener at Portland on New Year’s Day with an 11-3 record.

He may have found an answer at the post with freshman star Fousseyni Traore, who got a double-double (19 points and 13 rebounds) in the win over Liberty, his first career start.

Traore has shown flashes of brilliance around the basket. He has length and can block shots and work himself around the paint. He will only get better.

Starting and nursing along 6-foot-10 freshman Atiki Ally Atiki is a fine hobby, but it’s a long-term project because he simply has not played enough basketball in his life.

Pope has to get more out of Caleb Lohner offensively, more consistency out of Te’Jon Lucas, Seneca Knight and Gideon George.

But if you are those three, you have to fight some frustration with playing time as you battle to find a rhythm.

He absolutely needs to capture, use and be dependent on the 3-point abilities of Trevin Knell, Spencer Johnson and George.

If those guys don’t become legitimate and consistent 3-point threats in league play — you will see frustration from Barcello and really tough times with Saint Mary’s and San Francisco, who are also trying to knick up Gonzaga and get a No. 2 seed in Las Vegas.

“BYU will go as far as the perimeter play goes this season,” predicts former BYU star Jonathan Tavernari. “We know what to expect from Alex, but Te’Jon, Trev and Spence need to continue to shoot well for us to stay competitive. I’d love for Gideon to shoot more 3s and for Caleb to gain the confidence and aggression to shoot more as well.”

Without Baxter and Harward, an undersized Traore will work — at times. But he’s going to need some firepower from the wing and guards to keep up with the WCC challenges. It is the great equalizer.

In the names of Tavernari, TJ Haws and Jimmer Fredette, BYU has to have delivery from distance or the Cougars will become ordinary fast.

Going 11-3 with a schedule filled with teams that played in the NCAA Tournament is not average.

But if you can lose to a bad Vanderbilt team, you can lose to anybody.

BYU has wins over Utah (74th NET, 72 Pomeroy), SDSU (63rd, 44th), Utah State (55th, 56th), and Oregon (99th, 61st). The loss to UVU hurt, but the Wolverines have defeated Pepperdine and Long Beach State on the road and are 9-3 with losses to Boise State, Wyoming and Southern Utah on the road.

The Cougars have a No. 30 NET ranking and are 27th in Pomeroy.

That’s not too shabby and a credit to Pope’s coaching staff, scouting, game prep and adjustments after losing Baxter and Harward. If this team was inept and sloppy, it would have eight or nine wins instead of 11.

As of Monday, San Francisco leads the WCC preseason slate in wins at 12-1 followed by BYU and Saint Mary’s at 11-3. Gonzaga is 10-2 and Santa Clara is 10-5. Not all preconference schedules are equal, however.

Is BYU prepared to start WCC play?

Let’s say this is a team making good progress toward a March product.