‘The WCC is giving us more than we can handle right now’: Why BYU’s Mark Pope is not looking back, or forward, in final season in the league
While BYU is set to join what is considered to be the toughest league in the country, the Big 12, next season, coach Mark Pope is focused on what’s directly in front of him
LAS VEGAS — A year ago, BYU basketball had its worst finish — fifth place — since joining the West Coast Conference in 2011-12.
And now, in their final season as members of the WCC, the league’s coaches voted the Cougars to finish in a tie for third place with San Francisco.
“We’re spending very little time thinking about (the Big 12). The WCC is giving us more than we can handle right now. This is a great league,” he said. “There’s a lot of times that I think that the top half of the WCC is better than the top half of a couple of Power 5 conferences. I think there are numbers to back that up. It’s not like we’re leaving a bad league and going to a great league. We’re leaving a really good league and going to the most dominant league in college right now.”
A year ago, BYU finished behind Gonzaga — the perennial WCC champs — Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara and San Francisco with a 9-6 league record.
Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco went to the NCAA Tournament. BYU fell to USF in the WCC Tournament quarterfinals last March and ended up advancing to the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
The Cougars suffered key injuries early in the season to Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter but still started with a 17-4 record.
Then BYU suffered a four-game losing streak, beginning with a last-second loss at Santa Clara, which changed the complexion of the season.
But Pope is not looking back, either.
“I don’t get the sense that our team is spending any time thinking about last year. Our team is thinking about this year. We know who we are. We’re really young and pretty undersized,” he said. “Normally, that’s not a great recipe in college basketball. I really believe people are going to come to these games and look out on the floor and say, ‘How are these guys doing this?’ I think these guys are going to put together a really special season. I think they’re going to accomplish things that nobody thinks they can do. There’s nothing more gratifying in sports than that.”
BYU has no all-conference players returning with the graduation of guard Alex Barcello.
The Cougars placed one player on the preseason All-Conference team — sophomore forward Fousseyni Traore.
Senior forward Gideon George doesn’t seem to mind the low expectations from those outside the program.
“I’ll tell you this — there’s a lot of dudes in that locker room that have a lot of dogs in them,” he said. “They want to compete and they want to fight every day. At practice every day, everyone is trying to lock in and play hard and play tough. That’s what I like about this year’s team.”
“Everybody is 100% committed, giving our best every day,” Traore said. “That’s what I’m most excited about.”
The WCC is probably as good as it’s ever been, headlined by Gonzaga, which will once again be one of the favorites to win the national championship. The Zags, picked to win their 11th straight league title, are loaded again with stars Drew Timme, Julian Strawther and Rasir Bolton.
Gonzaga was the No. 1 overall seed in last season’s NCAA Tournament and lost Chet Holmgren, who was selected No. 2 overall in the NBA draft.
Saint Mary’s, predicted to finish second, boasts Logan Johnson, Alex Ducas and Kyle Bowen. Tommy Kuhse has moved on, but the Gaels still have plenty of talent.
San Francisco and BYU tied for third in the preseason ballots with 57 points. The Dons reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998. USF is led by guard Khalil Shabazz, who has lit up the Cougars in past seasons.
Pope is optimistic about what his team can become in the program’s final year in the league.
“This returning group has gotten better. Then we have all these young guys and new guys that have grown week-to-week so fast,” he said. “I feel way different about this team than I did two weeks ago before we started two-a-days. I feel way more confident that we’ll find some way to be really, really competitive … I think there will be times when I’m going to look at the court and say, ‘I’m not sure how these guys are winning but, man, their special sauce is awesome.’ That’s what I expect from them this season. I think this team will be really, really fun to watch and to coach. We’re going to take a giant swing at this in our last chance in the WCC.”