As BYU enters its final year in the West Coast Conference, and finds itself a year away from joining the “toughest conference in college basketball”, the Big 12, coach Mark Pope is dramatically changing the way his team plays the game.

Pope’s new-look plan for his new-look team involves a high-tempo pace and a disruptive defense, featuring presses and zones. 

“We’re trying to play this game faster … one of the things where I’m super excited and nervous about growing as a coach is to do a better job teaching my guys how to play rather than directing them how to play.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

Plus, he wants to give his players more freedom to make decisions. It’s all part of an attempt to prepare not only for this season — but also the future.

“We’re going to have to become a product that’s different than other teams in the Big 12,” Pope said Wednesday during media day at the BYU Broadcasting Building. “Right now, the WCC’s so hard, we’re going to have to be a little bit different from the WCC. This is one of the ways we’re approaching it. That’s how we’re trying to think about the game right now.”

There could be some growing pains along the way, Pope admitted, especially considering the youth on the team. 

“We’re trying to play this game faster. … One of the things where I’m super excited and nervous about growing as a coach is to do a better job teaching my guys how to play rather than directing them how to play,” he said. “I’d like to do less play-calling and I’d like to do more teaching. Our ceiling is higher if we play that way. We’ve been a top-20 offensive team in our tenure here but I’d like to take a next-level step there. I think we have a team that can do it.”

When asked to describe the Cougars’ style of play on both offense and defense this season, Coastal Carolina transfer guard Rudi Williams cut to the chase.

“I’ll start with defense because that’s most important. We’re going to try to be really disruptive and versatile. We’ve got bigger guys that can switch, like (6-foot-11 Detroit Mercy transfer) Noah Waterman. He can guard 1-5 in my opinion. We’re going to try to speed guys up and make them make bad decisions,” he said. “Offensively, we’re just trying to be one of the fastest teams in the country.

“After we get scored on, or we get a stop, coach Pope wants the ball to cross half-court in 2½ or 3 seconds. That kind of shows how fast we’re trying to play. We’re shooting a lot of 3s, we’re spacing the floor, and we’re having fun while we’re doing it.”

On defense, the goal is to ratchet up the intensity. In practices, BYU’s coaching staff diligently keeps track of “Defensive Impact Metric,” which include deflections and steals in an attempt to force turnovers. 

“It’s really causing havoc and chaos. That’s our whole goal. When you’re playing basketball, you don’t ever want to be afraid. Someone’s guarding you and everyone’s coming at you, hands everywhere,” said returning guard Trey Stewart. “You don’t want that. We’re trying to make other teams feel uncomfortable and feel our presence on the court.

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“We don’t want anybody to catch the ball on the wing and look around and just feel comfortable. We want to put ball pressure on them. We want to make sure we have each others’ backs, talking like crazy. We’re just animals, going crazy out there. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

It’s a style that fits senior forward Gideon George. Others, like Spencer Johnson, Richie Saunders and Stewart are also among the team leaders in DIM. 

“Gideon is always leading the charge with his length and experience,” Stewart said. “He’s going to be a great defender for us.” 

“We’re spending some time on a press right now. We’re spending some on a disruptive zone look that’s a little bit different and new for us,” Pope said. “It’s a little bit more high-risk and high-reward. In general, that’s the philosophy we’re facing. We’re also encouraging our guys to take chances.” 

Johnson, who has long been defensive-minded, has embraced the new approach.

“They’re really challenging us to get out in passing lanes more and take more chances that way. To use your hands a lot more,” he said. “You watch the NBA and those dudes, whenever someone drives the lane, they’re always slapping at the ball. … We’ve thrown in a little bit of zone that we’ve been working on, as well as a press. It’s something since I’ve been here, BYU’s never done. It will be fun to see where that goes this year.”

“When coach said at the beginning of the summer that our goal is to be the most disruptive team, I loved that,” Saunders said. “It’s been super fun to see in practice, where we measure it every day — the deflections, the steals. It keeps you competitive.”

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Johnson said the Cougars will be running nonstop this season. 

“We’ve really been working on running in transition a lot more. … They’re really pushing us this year to every time you get that rebound, you’re not running, you’re sprinting down the floor — wide and hard. That’s been a huge strength for us in practices,” he said. “On the flip side, our team is a little bit smaller this year. Things that we’re going to need to shore up would be to secure those rebounds so we can get out and run.”

On the offensive side, players have been getting up, literally, thousands of shots. 

“We have a lot of dudes that can shoot. They’re really pushing us to get 1,000 3s outside of practice on our own every week,” Johnson said. “That’s been super helpful. We have a lot of dudes that are willing to shoot outside and they’re not afraid of taking those shots. I think that’s going to be a strength of ours this year.”

Pope is rolling the dice with this new-look style, but he believes this is the right path forward for a program at a crossroads. 

“I think I have a lot of faith in this group. This is going to be a group where you look out on the court and you’re like, ‘I actually don’t think those guys are going to win.’ And then we’re going to win. I have a lot of faith in that right now,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have our moments where we’ll stumble. We’re young and we’re small. That’s just what we are. … Afterwards, you’ll walk out of the arena just shaking your head and be like, ‘I don’t know how those young players did this.’ That’s my expectation.

“This team has a chance not just to grow into something this year; this nucleus has a chance to grow into something — we have to get through a lot of hurdles and a lot of changes — beyond spectacular over the next couple of years. That’s super exciting.”

BYU officially tips off the season Nov. 7 at home against Idaho State.

BYU players show off new uniforms at a Midnight Madness event at the Marriott Center last week. | Matthew Norton, BYU Photo