In the moments after Utah Valley University knocked off then-No. 12 BYU on Dec. 1, the concern was etched on the face of coach Mark Pope, and it was palpable in his voice. 

Cougars on the air

BYU (17-4, 5-1)

at Santa Clara (11-7, 1-2)

Thursday, 9 p.m. MST

Leavey Center


Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

There, in the bowels of the UCCU Center, where he spent four years as the Wolverines’ coach, Pope knew that his Cougars team suddenly needed to reinvent itself. 

The usually affable and energetic Pope looked emotionally drained.

Senior forward Gavin Baxter had suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first half. As bad as it was to lose to crosstown rival UVU, losing Baxter’s experience, leadership and athletic ability for the remainder of the young season was even worse.

Another Cougars big man, Richard Harward, was already sidelined for what turned out to be the entire season.

“We’re going to have to make some adjustments with the new roster we have,” Pope said solemnly that night. “We’re going to have to change some things. And we will. We’ll get better a new way. We’re going to have to get better a new way right now. And we will.”

The reality was, filling the huge void left by Baxter and Harward would be two freshmen — Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki. Out of necessity, and out of Africa, they would be thrown to the proverbial wolves. 

“These young guys, our young fives, are going to grow really fast,” Pope said. “They’ll do a good job. They’ll get better.”

Pope turned out to be prophetic. Both Traore and Ally Atiki have grown up, and improved, quickly. 

Danny Ainge on legacy of Elite Eight team — and his investment in BYU basketball
BYU sharpshooter Shaylee Gonzales taking aim at the record books
Perception vs. metrics: How important is it to for BYU to be ranked compared to what the analytics say?

Last weekend, they both played key roles as BYU moved to 17-4 overall and 5-1 in the West Coast Conference in wins over San Diego and Portland.

“Our ceiling,” Pope said this week, “is a little bit connected to those guys. They’re both growing really quickly.”

Traore, a 6-foot-6, 254-pounder from Mali, with a 7-2 wingspan, recorded back-to-back double-doubles. In last Thursday’s triumph over San Diego, Traore played a career-high 31 minutes, scored 14 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had two blocks. Two nights later, on his birthday, he shot a perfect 6 of 6 from the field, scored 13 points and collected 10 rebounds. 

Ally Atiki, a 6-9, 213-pounder from Tanzania, has become a defensive presence, having blocked three shots against Portland. He also had three blocks in the win over Saint Mary’s. 

“Losing Gavin was tough on me and Atiki,” Traore said. “Everybody expects a lot from us. We need to step up to help the team however we can.”

As amazing as it is what they’re doing on the court for the Cougars, what’s even more amazing is that for both players, English is not their first language — Traore speaks French and Bambara; Ally Atiki speaks Swahili — they’re attending a rigorous academic institution, and they’re adapting to a different culture.

Atiki Ally Atiki rests his hand on the shoulder of Fousseyni Traore during timeout at the Marriott Center. The two freshmen from Africa have played key roles for the Cougars this season. | Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

“They’re progressing at a better rate than anybody would have expected. They’re such talents. We see it. Atiki has an incredible build. He’s a rock and super athletic,” said guard Alex Barcello. “He can block shots and rebound. He’s learning. Fouss doesn’t know how good that he is. Sometimes when he gets catches in the post, and is able to finish over other bigs, it’s really impressive what he’s doing as a freshman.”

Pope said that they both spend a great deal of time in class and in study hall. And when they’re not focusing on academics, they’re playing basketball. 

“It’s unbelievable what these two are doing. In a real sense, they’re going a long way toward saving Alex’s senior year and our season,” Pope said. “They’ve been thrust into this really difficult situation and they’re ringing the bell. It’s pretty awesome. I can’t say enough good things about those young men.”

Turning ‘Fouss-tration’ into fight

At BYU, Traore burst onto the scene in late October, during the Blue-White scrimmage. 

He hit his first six shots from the floor and finished with a game-high 20 points, 11 rebounds, and three assists, providing a glimpse of his potential. Traore was also 2 of 2 from 3-point range.

“Fouss is a special player. Even when we recruited him to the first time we got our hands on him, he’s got a great feel. Having his dad as a basketball coach, he has a great feel for the game,” assistant coach Chris Burgess said after the game. “He’s played at one of the best high schools in the country the last four years. And he’s been well-coached. What he did tonight, he stuffed the stat sheet. But what he’s done since he got here in the summer, he’s been doing a lot of stuff — rebounding the ball, beautiful touch around the rim, protecting the rim. He’s a rim-protector. And he doesn’t do anything out of character. Him knocking down two 3s, that was a little surprising.”

BYU forward Fousseyni Traore tries to grab a rebound in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Traore made a huge impact in the Cougars’ upset of then-No. 12 Oregon in mid-November. And people around the country started to take notice. 

In late December at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii, Traore ended up being named to the All-Tournament team by amassing a career-high 15 rebounds against Vanderbilt, then recording his first double-double with 19 points and 13 rebounds against Liberty.

Pope likes to talk about “turning frustration into fight.” This season, it’s been turning Fouss-stration into fight.

“He just continues to impress. He’s just growing fast. He’s a humble, hungry, selfless guy that just wants to get better every single day,” Pope said of Traore at that time. “And he’s helping us. It’s interesting because it’s of necessity — he should not have to do this right now. He shouldn’t have to be carrying this burden but he’s sure carrying like a pro. He’s been awesome.”

And he’s become something of a folk hero.

Eventually, CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein would tweet about Traore, “Buy stock now.”

In Provo, Traore is a fan favorite, affectionately known as “Fouss.” Whenever he’s introduced, or makes a big play, the student section yells, “Fouuuuussssss!”

Fouss continues to show his potential.

“Before the season, I said, there could be some little shades of a Yoeli Childs-type athlete,” Pope said. “You can kind of see it a little bit. He’s going to be a great player.”

Traore is turning into a double-double machine, with four double-doubles this season. In WCC play, he averages 10.8 points and 9.8 rebounds. He’s earned WCC Freshman of the Week honors three times in 2021-22. 

“For a lesser freshman, it could break him. It could break him either way,” Pope said of Traore’s success. “He could play great and it could ruin him. He could play bad and it could ruin him. But Fouss is such an extraordinary young man. Whether he plays great or medium or poor, he’s going to learn from it and grow from it. That’s the impact it will have for him.”

Traore is shooting 56% from the field, 76% from the free throw line and he’s averaging 1.4 blocks per game. 

“He’s incredible. We don’t have a guy on this team that doesn’t love to play with Fouss. He brings such positive energy every day. He’s got such a high ceiling ahead of him,” Barcello said. “I don’t even know if he knows it, which is so incredible. I think that’s why he comes in every day so hungry to get better. He doesn’t know if he feels pressure out there. He’s just kind of hooping and doing what we teach in practice … The fact that he’s out there with a smile as a freshman and can produce in big-time moments down the stretch, it’s incredible. It’s going to be fun to watch his career.”

Forward Caleb Lohner played with Traore at Wasatch Academy before the two became teammates at BYU this season.

“Fouss is one of the best dudes you’ll meet. Every time I see Fouss, I have a smile on my face afterwards. He’s a bright presence on our team and in our locker room. We’re blessed to have him,” Lohner. “His story is awesome, coming from a country that none of us really understand. For him to be playing basketball at BYU with us and bringing that light and energy to our team is really special.”

Since high school, Traore has made big strides.

“He’s become super confident. He really cares and he has put forth his heart and effort into this team and it shows,” Lohner said. “He’s been a blessing for our team. To know him as a basketball player and a person has been awesome.”

Pope describes Traore as “incredibly kind. He’s really, really smart. He’s got an old soul. What I mean by that is, he is consistent every single day. He gets up in the morning and does his work. He’s one of those guys, and I don’t know if it’s factual because I don’t check his room, but he’s one of those guys that gets up and makes his bed every single morning. He handles his business.”

Atiki — ‘A beautiful kid’  

Under different circumstances, Ally Atiki might not have played much this season. But the Cougars have needed him to produce in certain situations — and he has. 

Ally Atiki has averaged 8.7 minutes in 18 games. He averages 1.8 points, 2 rebounds, and .7 blocks per game. He’s shooting 52% from the floor. 

“Give him a couple of months and Atiki is going to be a problem getting post catches, especially against an extended defense,” Pope said early in the season. 

Ally Atiki is as raw as a player can be. He prepped at London Basketball Academy in London, Ontario, Canada, before enrolling at BYU. But he barely played last year due to the pandemic. 

“He’s a beautiful kid. It’s cool just to see where he comes from in terms of Tanzania and how he got here, through Canada, through camps, and his journey here to North America with a language barrier,” Burgess said. “He’s only played the game since he was 14 or 15 years old. He weighed 175 pounds, at 6-9, when he got here. Now he’s got the body of an NBA player in terms of his size, his length, his reach and things he can do on the court. He is a true five. He’s got great length.”

BYU’s Atiki Ally Atiki shoots during practice at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Ally Atiki’s length has given the Cougars an edge on defense. 

“He’s very impactful. Especially sometimes you get beat downhill and you’re just watching the block,” said forward Seneca Knight. “You just know it’s about to happen. He’s been improving every single game. He comes out and works hard every single day. It’s enjoyable to play with him.”

In December, Ally Atiki started three games before being replaced by Traore in the starting lineup. 

“Even though Atiki is so young and he doesn’t understand most of the words I say yet, he has got a physical presence,” Pope said at the time.

From the time Ally Atiki started practicing with the Cougars last summer, to where he is right now, the change has been dramatic. 

“It’s night and day. I’m so proud of him,” said guard Te’Jon Lucas after a game earlier this season. “He played 15 minutes and he was out there playing with force, talking screens out, blocking shots, making jump hooks. We’re getting the start of what he’s going to be. He’s been working hard in practice and he’s able to come out in the game and show it.”

Barcello is grateful for Ally Atiki’s contributions.

“It’s fun to be part of a team where you have guys that are freshmen that are trying to absorb everything,” he said. “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.”

Communication on the court, particularly on the defensive end, is crucial. And Ally Atiki is working hard at that. 

“You got to give him credit. He’s learning English,” Lucas said. “As long as we hear something, we know something is coming.”

Usually, that something coming is Ally Atiki, poised to block, or alter, a shot.

Facing the prospect of playing the rest of the season without the 6-9 Baxter and 6-11 Harward, Pope knew that night in early December that he would be putting a burden on Traore and Ally Atiki. 

Months later, where would BYU be without them? 

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

It’s late January. Traore and Ally Atiki are filling a void — and, in a real sense, saving BYU’s season.