This is a fascinating and crucial transition period for BYU basketball.

The Cougars, in their fourth season under coach Mark Pope, are entering their final year in the West Coast Conference before they join the Big 12 in 2023-24

“There’s something really special about the process of a team figuring out who they are that I love so much. It’s the journey of a season. I actually love it. Clearly, I haven’t won a game at BYU without Alex Barcello. Hopefully, that changes at some point this season.” — Mark Pope

In the first two seasons under Pope, BYU was ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll and played in the NCAA Tournament in 2021 (it would have also participated in the 2020 Big Dance if it weren’t canceled due to the pandemic). 

But then the Cougars took a step back last season. 

Certainly, BYU is coming off a disappointing performance. The Cougars suffered early-season health-related issues and injuries to Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter, creating a situation where they had to reinvent themselves. Still, they started 17-4 before a four-game losing streak that changed the course of the season. 

In the end, BYU finished fifth in the WCC, with an NIT appearance and a 24-11 record.

Then, in the weeks after the conclusion of the season, several players entered the transfer portal, including Caleb Lohner (Baylor), Baxter (Utah), Hunter Erickson (Utah) and Seneca Knight (Illinois State)

This season also marks Pope’s first time coaching BYU without three-year starting guard Alex Barcello, who is now playing professionally overseas. 

Once again, Pope has had to rebuild and retool the roster with plenty of new faces, including transfers Rudi Williams, Noah Waterman, Jaxson Robinson, returned missionaries Richie Saunders, Dallin Hall and Tanner Toolson, and true freshman Braeden Moore. 

They’re integrating with returning players like Gideon George, Fousseyni Traore, Atiki Ally Atiki, Spencer Johnson, Trey Stewart and Trevin Knell, although Knell will be sidelined for a few months as he recovers from shoulder surgery. 

As frustrating as last year was, Pope is not looking back.

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

BYU guard Jaxson Robinson, right, is among a handful of new players to the BYU roster. | BYU Photo

“I don’t get the sense that our team is spending any time thinking about last year. We’re thinking about this year. We know who we are. We’re really young and we’re pretty undersized,” he said. “Normally, that’s not a great recipe in college basketball. I believe people are going to come to these games and look out on the floor and say, ‘How are these guys doing that?’ I really do.

“I think these guys can put together a really special season and I think they’re going to accomplish things that nobody thinks they can do. There’s nothing more gratifying in sports than that.”

Because of the transition BYU is going through, Pope is implementing a faster-paced, more defensive-minded style of play. The goal is to be “disruptive” defensively.

The Cougars lack size but will try to take advantage of their length. 

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“We’ve got to find a way to use this length. It’s pretty remarkable. We can put on the floor wingspans of 7-3, 7-1, 6-11, 6-10, 6-9,” Pope said. “We’ve got to find a way to really, really milk that for everything it’s worth. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Filling void left by Barcello

One of many questions surrounding this team is, where will the scoring come from? Last year, the Cougars could count on Barcello, who averaged 16.8 points per game. 

Only one player on the roster averaged double figures last season — Williams, who scored 14.7 at Coastal Carolina. 

“It’s going to be a really different feel. Last year, we knew Alex was going to give us 20 every single night. A lot of the offense was built around not just him scoring but the way teams reacted to him. In a lot of ways, that slowed down our play. It made us more static,” Pope said. “We were always trying to get him as a focal point of playmaking and play-finishing.

“Right now, this is back to our roots of, we’ve got five guys on the floor that can score. When they step on the court, and they look at their four teammates, it will be like, ‘Everybody can make a play.’ It helps us with our pace and our tempo. It makes us a more complicated, difficult scout. We still have to have guys step up in those key moments and make huge, winning plays. You can’t win without that. I think this group is going to do it together. That’s the DNA of who we are.”

Johnson said he and his teammates will be able to compensate, as a group, for the absence of Barcello.  

BYU guard Alex Barcello (13), who is now playing professionally overseas, and guard Spencer Johnson walk off the court after losing the 2022 West Coast Conference men’s basketball quarterfinals to the San Francisco Dons at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 5, 2022. Johnson believes he and his teammates, as a group, will be able to compensate for the loss of their three-year starter. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“Those kinds of guys are hard to replace. He definitely was a special player here. He had an incredible career. No one’s going to come in and be like an Alex Barcello because he was who he was. We have a totally different dynamic this year,” he said. “We have a lot of dudes that can score the ball and that are willing to put up shots.

“One night, it’s going to be like, ‘Tonight is your night. We need you to get 20.’ And the next night, this guy will be hot so we’ll have him get 20. I don’t think guys are too worried about who’s the alpha dog of this team. It is really competitive but we have a good feel of, this guy’s hot; we’re going to feed him.”

The Cougars are hoping to be a better overall 3-point shooting team this season.

“We have a lot of dudes that can shoot,” Johnson said. 

Rebuilding the roster

Stewart remembers at one point over the summer, because of the number of players that had left of the program, there were only five players remaining. 

“I was walking out of the gym with Fouss and I was like, ‘Fouss, this is one-third of our team, right here, me and you,” he recalled. “Us five really bonded, then Gideon came back and there were six. Pope would always bring us into his office and tell us, ‘If you guys build this foundation, when you add pieces, it will fall perfectly into place.’

“That’s pretty much what happened. That summer, we stayed close. Me, Fouss and Atiki just locked in. Trev and Spence, spent time with them. We worked on our relationships and when more were added, they saw what we were doing and that we had already created that family-like culture.”

“Coach Pope has a really good track record with bringing guys in and helping them have a successful career here. That’s really attractive to a lot of these players,” Johnson said. “This transfer portal is crazy. When guys get here on their visit, they come to campus and see our team and how together we are. We have genuine people on our team … that really care about you and want you to be successful. That’s really attractive to these players.”

How have the newcomers and returning players meshed? 

“We’ve built a really good culture here at BYU. We work hard. We’re really together. We talk about the Best Locker Room in America,” Johnson said. “It is always a challenge to take people from all over the country that have played at different schools and get them here and say, ‘This is how we play.’ But the new guys have been super fun to work with and they’ve been great teammates.”

For Williams, building chemistry has been a focal point since practices started. 

BYU newcomer Rudi Williams drives during Blue and White scrimmage Oct. 27, 2022. Big thing are expected of the Coastal Carolina guard. | BYU Photo

“I’ve learned the (returning) guys, where they like the ball,” he said. “That’s helped me since I’ve been here. We’re in the gym a lot. Our chemistry has no choice but to grow.”

Expectations

Most observers aren’t expecting this team to reach the NCAA Tournament. Makes sense, considering all the turnover on the roster. 

What are Pope’s expectations? 

“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.”

Waterman, a transfer from Detroit Mercy, is optimistic about what the Cougars can accomplish. 

“Our expectation level is pretty high. We’re going to do really well this season,” he said. “We’re going to play up and down, really fast. We have learned to play as a team. We’ve been learning how everybody plays and chemistry. Now, everything’s clicking a little bit.”

For Pope, putting together this new roster has been time-consuming and enjoyable. 

“There’s something really special about the process of a team figuring out who they are that I love so much. It’s the journey of a season,” he said. “I actually love it. Clearly, I haven’t won a game at BYU without Alex Barcello. Hopefully, that changes at some point this season.”

It’s all part of the Cougars’ fascinating and crucial transition as they prepare to usher in a new era.

BYU basketball coach Mark Pope yells as the Cougars play San Francisco in the 2022 West Coast Conference in Las Vegas.
BYU basketball coach Mark Pope yells as the Cougars play San Francisco in the 2022 West Coast Conference quarterfinals at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 5, 2022. BYU lost 63-75. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News