It was a strange college basketball season, and that strangeness has carried over to the offseason. 

That’s what BYU, and other programs around the country, are dealing with right now. 

More than 1,000 players have entered the NCAA transfer portal this spring and the Cougars’ coaching staff has been active when it comes to recruiting new players. 

“You know coach Mark Pope’s teams the last six years, even at Utah Valley University. We’re not a stranger to the portal and to transfers,” said assistant coach Chris Burgess. “It’s what we do. We’re excited about the portal and bringing in players to help us get to the next level and take the next step.” 

“We’re not a stranger to the portal and to transfers. It’s what we do. We’re excited about the portal and bringing in players to help us get to the next level and take the next step.” — assistant coach Chris Burgess

BYU’s coaching staff has lofty goals and it knows what it wants the program to achieve. Reality is, the Cougars are part of the West Coast Conference, headlined by national power Gonzaga, which advanced to the NCAA Tournament championship game for the second time in four years. And the Zags just landed the nation’s No. 1 high school player, 7-foot-1 Chet Holmgren. 

“We’re going to bring in the best players and we’re going to put together a good BYU team because guess what, Gonzaga’s not taking any step backward. They’ve shown that,” Burgess said. “They set the bar. If you know coach Pope, he’s not backing down to anybody. That’s what we’re shooting for.

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“We want to win a freakin’ WCC championship. We don’t want to just be up 12 points at the half. We want to win the whole thing,” he continued. “We’re committed to doing that, regardless of where those players come from, in-state, out of state, out of the country, we don’t care. We’re going to put together the best team we can.”

Burgess said this spring the program has contacted 15 to 20 players in the portal and has conducted six to 10 Zoom meetings with potential recruits, who aren’t allowed to make campus visits yet. 

BYU forward Matt Haarms blocks the shot attempt of Pepperdine guard Sedrick Altman in Las Vegas on Monday, March 8, 2021. BYU coaches are still actively re-recruiting Haarms, hoping to bring him back for the “bonus year” the NCAA granted players due to the pandemic. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

While he can’t discuss those players due to NCAA rules, BYU has pursued Cincinnati guard Michael Saunders, Jr., who ultimately chose to remain with the Bearcats, and Duke guard Jordan Goldwire, who ended up signing with Oklahoma. 

“There have been public ones that we’ve missed out on that we chased pretty hard,” Burgess said. 

Meanwhile, four Cougar players have entered into the portal — Connor Harding, who transferred to Utah Valley University; Kolby Lee, who transferred to Dixie State; Jesse Wade (who tweeted earlier this week that he has graduated and is moving on to the “next chapter” of his life); and Wyatt Lowell. Those moves have freed up a few scholarships.

At the same time, the coaching staff is also focused on re-recruiting players from last year’s team. Because of the pandemic, players didn’t lose any eligibility last season. That means seniors have become “super seniors” and can come back for one more year.

BYU had three seniors last season — Alex Barcello, Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette

All three are still contemplating a return to the Cougars next year, according to Burgess. It’s a similar situation to two years ago, when the staff re-recruited Yoeli Childs, who had declared for the NBA draft but decided to return for another season. 

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Last spring, BYU improbably signed Haarms, a 7-foot-3 transfer from Purdue. He was named the 2021 WCC Defensive Player of the Year.

“Just like with Matt Haarms and Alex Barcello and even Yoeli Childs, getting him to come back, we’re going to swing for the fences,” Burgess said. “We’re going for home runs. Those are the type of players we know that can help us get back to the NCAA Tournament and make a deep run.

“We love the roster we have coming back and we still have two scholarships that we need to go sign some really good players and we are. We’re excited about a couple of guys that we’re chasing right now.”

BYU guard Alex Barcello puts up a shot over Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert as BYU and Gonzaga play in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. BYU coaches are still actively re-recruiting Barcello, hoping to bring him back for the “bonus year” the NCAA granted players due to the pandemic. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Barcello, Haarms and Averette are sorting through options in professional basketball. Would they be better served playing for one more season or turning pro now? 

“As a staff, our job is to help these guys. This is a weird time, pandemic-wise, with international, G-League and NBA situations. It’s just different,” Burgess said. “It’s not the same as it is when there’s not a pandemic. Our job is to get as much information as we can and educate ourselves on what’s going on around the world for our seniors that we have.

“We want to make sure they make the best decisions from a basketball standpoint and a career standpoint after basketball. That’s what we’ve been doing — gathering information, meeting with them all the time, giving them the feedback they need to chase their dreams and chase their goals for basketball and life after basketball. It’s an interesting process.”

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Burgess said the staff wants to help each of those seniors make the best decision for themselves. Both Burgess and Pope have experience playing professionally, including overseas. They are sharing their wealth of personal experiences, and their connections, with Barcello, Haarms and Averette. 

“We’re trying to educate those three seniors and making sure they have our full, 100% support with the decision they’re going to make,” Burgess said. “We’ve learned a lot about what’s going on overseas and what might happen with the G League and what might happen with the NBA. We’re using the connections and personal relationships we have with people overseas.

“We love the roster we have coming back and we still have two scholarships that we need to go sign some really good players and we are. We’re excited about a couple of guys that we’re chasing right now.” — Chris Burgess

“I played 11 years over there. And people in the NBA and G League and get them the proper information they need so they can make a decision moving forward. That’s basically it. We love those three seniors and we’ll support them. We’re excited for them, regardless of what they choose to do. We’re looking forward to them making their decisions and supporting them.”

The process takes time and there’s a possibility that it could drag on for a while during this unique period. 

“Some seniors across the country have decided to leave and some have decided to stay. You’re going to see that throughout college basketball over the next couple of months,” Burgess said.

“It doesn’t cost you a scholarship. It doesn’t cost you one of the 13. It doesn’t affect you. If they decide to leave or stay in June, it doesn’t affect your scholarship situation. There’s no concern for us.” 

So while the staff is recruiting the super seniors to stay, it is also exploring what’s available in the transfer portal, trying to fill a couple more scholarships. 

“What makes sense for this team? What pieces and holes do we need to fill? You’re constantly doing that. You’re recruiting at a high level every single day, making calls and trying to put together the best BYU team to date,” Burgess said. “That’s what we want to do. There’s an expectation for ourselves and we’ve been really successful the last couple of years. We want to get better. You have to have good players to do that.”