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Why Mark Pope will have to up his game

Former BYU coach Steve Cleveland shares what he thinks move to Big 12 means to the program

BYU basketball coach Mart Pope draws up a play during conference tournament title game against Gonzaga in Las Vegas.
BYU basketball coach Mart Pope draws up a play during WCC Tournament championship game against Gonzaga on March 9, 2021, in Las Vegas.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Think Mark Pope is a good, energetic recruiter?

Well, in the Big 12, he’ll have to up his game.

He will be running into a basketball buzzsaw where even a break-even conference record may get an NCAA berth. And it might be tough to get to .500 in league wins.

Pope’s staff has been all over the transfer portal during past severals years, often hitting prospects within minutes of their names popping up on the spreadsheet. BYU was “in the hunt” for several prospects who ultimately chose to go to Big 12, ACC or Big Ten schools.

How will BYU’s membership in the Big 12 help Pope recruit in the coming seasons? Well, actually, beginning right now. It will get BYU in more doors.

Like Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said after the Utes entered the Pac-12, being in that league “made all the difference in the world” when it came to recruiting.

Right now, the Big 12 is the country’s best basketball conference. It can brag a national champion in Baylor and a Final Four participant in future member Houston. Six of the Big 12’s teams were ranked in the top 25 this past year. Since 2014, Ken Pomeroy ranked the Big 12 the No. 1 basketball league six times and No. 2 twice. RPI? Big 12 had the No. 1 RPI in 2021.

“It’s the best league in the country in basketball, especially what it’s becoming right now in terms of the additions,” said Pope on Big 12 invite day in Provo.

“It doesn’t get any better. That’s where you want to be. It’s super, super humbling. It’s going to be an unbelievable challenge. We’re incredibly excited about it.”

Danny Ainge, one of BYU’s two Naismith Player of the Year Award winners (Jimmer Fredette is the other) was at Cougar Day at Riverside Country Club in Provo on Monday and said the Big 12 will bring a whole new experience.

“You won’t just need shooters, you are going to really need athletes.”

Retired former BYU and Fresno State basketball coach Steve Cleveland totally understands what Big 12 membership means. It means BYU is playing a few more Gonzaga-level programs on a weekly basis, like Kansas, Baylor, Houston, Cincinnati and Texas Tech.

It’s a big-boy league and you will have to be ready.

Cleveland always reflects — with merit — the toughness of the old Mountain West with UNLV and New Mexico and an elevated San Diego State. It was a tough league.

The Big 12 of course, is better. Way better. Maybe the biggest challenge Cougar hoops has ever faced.

“It will be different and it will be challenging,” said Cleveland. “But I think Mark Pope and his staff are ready for this, I really do.”

Cleveland said the new rules with the transfer portal is a game-changer for college basketball and he envisions that Pope’s recruiting is geared to take advantage of it just like others.

Baylor won last year’s NCAA title, and the foundation of that run was transfers. Pope already has proven successful at working the transfer portal with Purdue center Matt Haarms (now gone), Arizona transfer Alex Barcello, Milwaukee guard Te’Jon Lucas and Seneca Knight from LSU.

“There are a lot of challenges BYU coaches have faced over the years with kids coming and going and players not being able to play right away, players coming off missions and taking a year from actually competing.

“But the transfer portal is the great equalizer,” Cleveland said. “Mark has done a great job and the transfer portal will continue to be really important.”

Cleveland said recruiting prospects with the promise to play against the very best in the college game will be a bonus for Pope.

“There is no question it will open doors,” he said.

Looking at the landscape of the Big 12, the travel will be tough, and playing at Kansas and other venues will be very different from going to places in the WCC.

“It is taking it to the next level,” said Cleveland.

On the other hand, Cleveland said Big 12 teams might find it challenging — just like Gonzaga did on occasion — to travel and play in a packed Marriott Center at altitude.

The Marriott Center will be trading home games with Loyola Marymount, San Diego, Portland, Santa Clara and Pepperdine and Saint Marys for Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech, national champion Baylor, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Iowa State and the likes of Houston and TCU and Oklahoma State.

“I think the program is ready for this to happen,” said Cleveland. “This is a really big step but I have every confidence in the world that Pope and his staff will do what needs to be done to accept the challenge.

“But at the end of the day, it is an incredible opportunity to take basketball to the next level. They will be recruiting and playing against the top players in the country.”

Observers may not have to wait long to see how Big 12 recruiting goes in Provo.

Starting this week, that league membership badge will be used by Pope and his staff as they phone, text, visit and sell.