Not long after the press conference at the BYU Broadcasting Building last Friday when BYU officially announced it will be joining the Big 12 in 2023, Cougars basketball legend Danny Ainge walked past coach Mark Pope.
“Hey, no weekends off anymore,” Ainge cracked to Pope, who laughed.
Ainge was being glib, but he wasn’t really joking.
Even though BYU has been competing with one of the nation’s top basketball programs, Gonzaga, in the West Coast Conference, things are going to get even tougher beginning in 2023.
With bigger challenges come bigger rewards.
The Big 12 is home to some of the best basketball programs in the nation, including reigning national champion Baylor, perennial powerhouse Kansas, in addition to West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
Houston, which is also moving to the Big 12 with BYU, Cincinnati and UCF, reached the Final Four last spring.
Pope called his program’s upcoming move to the Big 12 “historic,” adding, “It’s the best league in the country in basketball, especially what it’s becoming right now in terms of the additions. 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.”
Pope’s players are looking forward to the challenge, too, although some of them will have exhausted their eligibility by the 2023 season.
“A lot of my guys are like, ‘We need to get another COVID season so we can be in this deal.’ The guys are excited,” Pope said. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity. The league we’re playing in right now is really good. We’re going to be in this league for the next two years. Right now, the Big 12 has four teams preseason ranked in the top 40. The Pac-12 has four teams ranked in the preseason top 40. And the WCC has four teams ranked in the top 40 preseason. They’re great leagues. We’re excited about the work we have in front of us right now.”
Last Thursday, the night before the official announcement that BYU would be jumping to the Big 12, athletic director Tom Holmoe organized a Zoom meeting with all the coaches in the athletic department.
“Tom let us all know together,” Pope said. At the time, Pope was in Los Angeles on a recruiting trip.
How did he react to the news that BYU was headed to the Big 12?
“It was super complicated. I was in the airport at LAX. My flight was delayed. I was out recruiting. I was trying to come back and I was roaming around. At one point, I’m at the Delta terminal,” he said. “Tom asked me if I had a response. I started screaming. Of course, there’s thousands of people in there. They all turned and were like, ‘What is this idiot yelling over here, yelling?’ We’re all super excited, we’re super grateful and super humble. We understand that we’re getting in over our heads here and that’s exactly where we want to be.”
Here’s an in-depth look at how BYU basketball will be impacted by the move to the Big 12.
Opposing coaches have been using the fact that the Cougars don’t belong to a Power Five conference against them for years.
That won’t be a factor anymore.
Meanwhile, Pope knows that he and his staff will need to continue to bring elite talent into his program in order to compete in the Big 12.
“We’re going to have to recruit great. That question comes up a lot. There are so many little tiny pieces to recruiting,” he said. “As we prepare to make this move, the only reason (recruits) aren’t going to come to BYU if it has anything to do with a conference is because they think the conference is too good. Those kids we probably don’t want anyway.”
Being a member of the Big 12 could open up recruiting areas in places like Texas, Florida and throughout the Midwest.
But Pope has already been doing well recruiting nationally.
“We’ve kind of been taking a national approach. The last two signings were a kid from Milwaukee and a kid from New Orleans. We’ve been trying to reach as far as we can,” Pope said. “We’re having some good success internationally right now.
“This takes something off the table. For those kids that are motivated to go play in the toughest conference in the country and they want to do that, and face a life-or-death situation every single second of every single night, then we’re one of 12 teams now that are in that set-up. That’s pretty great.”
As members of the Western Athletic, Mountain West and West Coast conferences, BYU often looked to enhance their strength of schedule by trying to play a challenging nonconference slate.
Trying to lure big-name programs to the Marriott Center was a difficult task for former coaches like Roger Reid, Steve Cleveland and Dave Rose. And it’s been the same for Pope.
Well, that will change when the Cougars are part of the Big 12.
Just take the conference schedule alone. How about Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, for example, visiting Provo on a regular basis?
“It’s been such a challenge because those coaches brought this program to such an elite level that it’s a challenge to get those elite teams to come into this gym. It’s just a challenge,” Pope said. “The last 16 months, we’ve literally been going to teams and saying, ‘Hey, what if we do a three-for-one? We’ll come to your place three times and you just come here once? Or a three-for-neutral? We’ll come to your place three times and just you come to Vivint (Arena) one time.’ We don’t have to have those conversations any more.”
Pope relishes in the future games that will be played in the Marriott Center.
“I’m so excited for our fans. They get to see coach (Bob) Huggins roll in here with West Virginia and Bill Self with Kansas and Texas Tech. This Houston deal. We’ve had them here before but it gets to be a regular situation,” Pope said. “Oklahoma State. Baylor, the national champions. You think about the parade of teams that will roll through this Marriott Center.
“It’s one of the epic arenas in the country. We got to see it at its peak obviously against the No. 1 team in the country the last few years in Gonzaga. Now, it’s going to be a game after game deal. I’m so happy for Cougar Nation and BYU fans to make their way into this Marriott Center. It’s going to be really special.”
NCAA tournament bids and revenue
It’s expected that BYU will be able to generate much more revenue as a member of the Big 12 than it was earning as an independent in football and as a member of the WCC.
The Big 12 had seven teams get into the NCAA Tournament in 2021, equalling the number that the Atlantic Coast Conference had. The SEC saw six of its teams go to the Big Dance.
Yes, it’s going to be more difficult for BYU to finish in the top two of the Big 12, like it has consistently done in the WCC. On the other hand, the margin of error to get into the Big Dance — as it’s been in the WCC — won’t be as thin.
With more teams in the tournament, the more units (money) each program in the conference makes.
Big 12 Tournament
The annual Big 12 Tournament is contested at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City. It’s known as one of the most competitive conference tournaments in the country.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the league will continue to play the tournament in Kansas City through 2025.
“Kansas City runs an absolutely outstanding tournament,” Bowlsby said. “I think it is the best college basketball postseason tournament in the United States.”
Bowlsby pointed out the perennial strength of the Big 12.
“Our league has been No. 1 or 2 in the RPI every year for the last 10. Most of the time, we’ve been first in the RPI,” Bowlsby said. “You start to bring in a BYU, that is a traditional finisher in the top 25,” he said. “You look at Cincinnati. They’re in the top 15 winningest programs in the history of college basketball. Houston was a Final Four team this year. UCF is coached by my dear friend and colleague Johnny Dawkins, who came through the Duke program and has done great things down there.
“A very good basketball league will get even better. We expect to be in Kansas City to contest the men’s and women’s tournaments. The T-Mobile Center is a great showcase. … It’s going to be no fun to play in the Big 12 Conference. It’s gotten even tougher than it was before.”
Relationships with coaches and a new landscape
Pope is familiar with many of the Big 12 coaches already. Those relationships will get stronger and he’ll become even more familiar with fellow coaches like Baylor’s Scott Drew, Kansas’ Self and West Virginia’s Huggins, as his team competes in the league.
“It’s an unbelievable league of coaches, both head coaches and assistant coaches,” Pope said. “It’s going to be fun.”
Pope has experienced this before when it comes to starting in a new league. His first year as a BYU assistant was in 2011-12, the Cougars’ debut season in the WCC.
“We’ve been through this a little bit as a staff where we had an opportunity to figure out new leagues,” Pope said. “This is a super fun process with great coaches, people I really respect. They’ve won at the highest level.
“Take (Houston coach) Kelvin Sampson, for example. Kelvin was the first coach, when he was at Washington State, I think I was in the seventh grade, to reach out to me and start recruiting me. Those relationships go back forever. He’s a guy that I really respect and love. It’s going to be tremendous. It’s so exciting.”
Pope extolled the work of Holmoe, who worked for years on the NCAA Basketball Selection Committee and the relationships he formed on behalf of the BYU basketball program.
“I can’t tell you how many different people throughout the basketball world that worked with him have come back and talked about how extraordinary he is and what a leader he is and his integrity and his kindness,” Pope said. “That’s a massive reason, not just why this decision was really easy for the Big 12, as Bob (Bowlsby) said, but also why this athletic department is flourishing at such a level because of his leadership.”
Many have speculated that Pope, who has guided BYU to a 44-15 record, an NCAA Tournament appearance and two finishes in the top 25, might be moving on to greener pastures with a Power Five program at some point.
This jump to the Big 12 may put that speculation to rest.
“Mark Pope has made BYU into his ‘next” job,’ CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein tweeted last week. “Good for Cougars fans.”
On the eve of BYU’s 2020-21 season opener, Holmoe announced that the school had extended Pope’s contract through the 2026-27 season.
The Cougars probably won’t have to worry about keeping Pope around anymore.
That’s yet another big benefit of being a member of a Power Five conference like the Big 12.
“It’s the best conference in the country, getting better,” Pope said. “You think about it. You’re losing two great programs in Texas and Oklahoma, who have had one appearance in the final AP Top 25 in the last two years — Texas one time. Whereas if you just took Houston and BYU, both teams have been in the final AP Top 25 two years in a row. Houston was in the Final Four last year. It’s terrifying to think that the conference is going to get tougher. But we’re really excited about it.”