As the BYU basketball program heads into its final season in the West Coast Conference, there’s a challenge looming as the Cougars prepare to join the nation’s top hoops conference, the Big 12.
Coach Mark Pope knows it.
“We also have this idea long term of where’s our trajectory taking us? How are we getting there? We’re trying to evolve as a program. Sometimes that can be painful. But it’s always super exciting.” — Mark Pope
“We have to evolve,” he said. “It’s really important.”
The Cougars have certainly experienced some evolution during his three seasons at the helm.
But moving forward, recruiting and scheduling will be different. It has to as members of the Big 12.
This season, BYU has added some new talent from the transfer portal, but it will put a young and relatively inexperienced team on the floor.
“We evolved from Year 1 to Year 2 and 3; and we were different Year 2 and 3 than 1. We need to make another step,” Pope said. “We are trying some new space right now with young guys. Clearly, our only agenda right now is to compete as well as we can in the WCC. That’s our 100% focus.
“We also have this idea long term of where’s our trajectory taking us? How are we getting there? We’re trying to evolve as a program. Sometimes that can be painful. But it’s always super exciting.”
The Cougars have just two seniors on the roster — guard Rudi Williams and forward Gideon George. There’s a few juniors — guard Spencer Johnson, transfer forward Noah Waterman and guard Trevin Knell, though Knell is expected to be sidelined until January or February due to an injury.
That leaves some sophomores, forwards Fousseyni Traore, Atiki Ally Atiki; guards Trey Stewart and transfer Jaxson Robinson; and freshmen with recently returned missionaries Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders and Tanner Toolson; as well as forward Braeden Moore, who’s right out of high school.
So the Cougars will be counting on young players this year as they build for the future and make the transition to the Big 12.
“We have a lot of freshmen that are going to have to help us this year. And it’s exciting,” Pope said. “We don’t have a veteran team like we’ve had the past three years. But we have a nucleus of guys that could grow into a real problem on the national level if we can stay together and keep getting better every day.”
Last November, BYU signed Collin Chandler, ranked by ESPN as the 28th-best prospect in the entire country for the class of 2022. Chandler is currently serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Sierra Leone and won’t join the Cougars until 2024-25.
BYU’s all-time leading scorer, Tyler Haws, who is now an analyst for BYUtv, is looking forward to program’s jump into the Big 12.
“Obviously, I’m so excited. It’s been a goal and a vision that (athletic director) Tom (Holmoe) has had for a really long time. People were critical of going to the WCC. But he’s been really smart and he’s developed the relationships he needed to to make that happen. You can see it in recruiting in football and basketball. That’s a huge deal,” he said. “Guys want to play in those (Big 12) gyms. That’s really exciting, that recruiting takes another step up.
“In basketball, people don’t want to play at the Marriott Center. It’s hard to schedule good preseason games. There’s only been a handful of them the last 15 years, where a big school will come. Generally, they don’t want to because they know how hard it is to win. I can’t wait for Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Baylor to come here. It’s going to be incredible. They don’t have a choice but to come. It will be really fun. It will make for such exciting games. The Marriott Center full is amazing. There are very few places that can rival that energy. It’s the best.”
Because of all the Quad 1 games that will be part of BYU’s conference schedule as members of the Big 12 — home to the last two national champions, Baylor and Kansas — Pope will have to figure out a new strategy when it comes to nonconference scheduling.
“A lot of the challenge (for this season) was from me because we don’t even know what the Big 12 is going to look like next year. My thing was, we needed to have a really challenging schedule, which we do. It’s super challenging,” Pope said. “But I didn’t want to make a bunch of long-term commitments because we just don’t know what we’re rolling into.
“Right now, it’s an 18-game schedule, but who knows what’s going to happen over the next several months … we just don’t know. That brought some complications. Just trying to make as many one-year commitments as we could. We have some contracts that are expiring so that helped us this year.”
Pope added that he won’t have to worry about scheduling Quad 1 games during the preseason like he has the past three seasons.
“Scheduling is going to be a whole new endeavor for us next year. It’s so interesting. We have been trying to give away 3-for-1s to get Quad 1 games. Or taking a game on the road because it turns a Quad 2 at home into a Quad 1 on the road,” he said. “We’ll take the one-off on the road. Now, as we make this transition, we’re going to have three times as many Quad 1 games as we used to build into our schedule. We’re going to have to relearn how to construct a schedule and manage a schedule. It will be a big challenge for us.”
It’s all part of the BYU basketball program’s need to evolve as it prepares to compete in the Big 12 starting next season.