Not long after BYU beat Westminster in its nonconference finale last Wednesday, coach Mark Pope told his players they would be banned from the basketball facility for the next two days.
The Cougars (12-3) already had their West Coast Conference opener, on New Year’s Day, against Portland, postponed. Pope knew his team deserved a break.
“We actually banished everybody from the gym for 48 hours — staff, everyone,” Pope said.
In a way, that postponement turned out to be a blessing in disguise for BYU, which had traveled thousands of miles in December, including to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.
“We desperately needed it,” Pope said. “We were on fumes. It’s given us a chance to catch our breath. … It worked out well for us, I think.”
Guard Alex Barcello agreed.
“It recharged us,” he said. “We could take some time to rest your legs and get ready for conference. It definitely re-energized us.”
After that respite, the Cougars open WCC play Thursday (7 p.m. MST, BYUtv) at home against Pacific, which lost six of its final seven nonconference games.
While the Tigers (5-9) are the lowest-rated team in the conference, Pope knows his team can’t look past them, even with a game against Saint Mary’s coming up on Saturday.
Pacific is led by first-year coach Leonard Perry, who previously was the associate head coach under Damon Stoudamire. The Tigers are basically the same team they were last year, when they threw a major scare into BYU in Provo before falling 95-87 in double overtime.
“I don’t know if a lot has changed. They’re still super physical and they play really, really hard,” Pope said. “They’re shooting it better than they had in the past beyond the 3-point line, which is big challenge. They’re still long and athletic in the middle. The DNA of the team is still there.”
The message for the Cougar players that aren’t familiar with the WCC is to be prepared for a tough challenge every night.
“If you’re a novice or haven’t been through this before, you might look at Pacific, for example, and say, ‘Pacific is ranked 200-something and BYU is ranked 27th’ and you might walk in with the expectation to win,” Pope said. “Those guys that have been through it, here in our gym, it took every ounce of guts we had to win in overtime. That’s what conference play is. Our veteran guys understand it. They’ve experienced it. They’ve lived it. They understand that this Pacific game is going to be just as hard as the Gonzaga game on the road.”
“It’s a tough conference, especially this year. There’s going to be ups and downs. As much as we want to go undefeated, that’s really hard to do,” Barcello said. “That’s what our goal is for this conference but we might lose a game here or there. How are we doing to battle back from that and handle that adversity? This coaching staff does a great job of teaching how to bounce back from losses. It’s approaching every game with the same amount of energy and preparation that we always try to prepare for, knowing every game is going to be a battle.”
After playing without Spencer Johnson and Seneca Knight for the Westminster game, both players, who had been dealing with an illness, practiced Tuesday and are expected to be available Thursday.
Pacific is led by forward Jeremiah Bailey, who averages 10.6 points per game, guard Alfonso Anderson (10.5 ppg) and guard Luke Avdalovic (10.2 ppg). Bailey is shooting 45.3% from the floor, 41.9% from 3-point range and 56.5% from the free-throw line.
From 2011-15, Pope served as an assistant coach at BYU. He’s noticed a big difference between what the WCC was then to what it is now.
“This is the best the league has ever been and it’s not even close. We have four teams in the top 40, give or take. That’s rarefied air. The league is really, really good,” Pope said. “The venues are getting better. You think of the upgrades the schools have made and the coaching is really, really good. The talent is good. This year, you have so many teams in the league that kept their super seniors. The league is super veteran this year. All those things kind of combine to make this league really good.
“Give or take a few spots, you take Saint Mary’s and San Francisco and Gonzaga, at the end of the season, of those six games could work out to be four or five Quad 1 games at home against league opponents,” Pope added. “That’s never been here before. Traditionally, we’ve been happy with three Quad 1 games in league. The WCC has never had four teams projected in the NCAA Tournament in January. That doesn’t mean it’s going to hold but it gives you a sense of how competitive this league is right now.”