Entering the season, BYU coach Mark Pope and his players had high expectations for a return to the NCAA Tournament. 

Well, that didn’t happen.

Then on Wednesday night at the Marriott Center, the season ended with a 77-58 setback to Washington State in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals. 

For the Cougars (24-11), it was a disappointing conclusion. They were hoping to advance to the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. 

Of course, it’s not a pleasant feeling. 

“It’s actually the worst. I think the guys are of course sad about (Wednesday’s outcome). They’re more sad about the season and that this run together is over,” said Pope. “But the way it works is, the most sad they’re going be is tomorrow morning when they wake up. That’s going to be the worst. Then every day from then on, all the things they accomplished this year, will filter back in. Even the things they didn’t accomplish … it was putting their whole heart and soul into it and really committing to each other. That will get sweeter every day with time. They did a lot of great things this year.”

The Rise of Fouss the Freshman

BYU had to cope with the loss of two veteran post players, Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter early in the season.

Considering those circumstances, the Cougars probably overachieved this season.

“The injuries for us were a challenge. It changed a lot. With those injuries, the difficulty of the schedule wore on us for sure. Those are two of the challenges we faced early on and all season long,” Pope said. “These guys did an incredible job. It’s not easy to win 24 games. It’s hard. You’ve got to fight and scratch and claw to do that. What these guys have done this season is incredible, even though we fell short of some goals and standards that we have. These guys put their whole heart into it.” 

Fortunately for the Cougars, freshmen big men Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki stepped up and helped save the season. 

“I couldn’t be more proud of how these guys responded. This is one of those seasons that could be a 15-15 year,” Pope said. “You could write it off as an injury season. But these guys refused to let that happen. It’s actually incredible. I’m super proud of their commitment. It was really special.”

Traore, a 6-foot-6, 254-pounder from Mali, Africa, grabbed 273 rebounds, surpassing Yoeli Childs — who attended Wednesday’s game — for the most rebounds by a freshman in program history. 

“He was put in a really unfair position. There’s no two ways about it. It’s not fair to expect him to play top-25 basketball against great teams every single night as a freshman,” Pope said. “It’s just not fair. It wasn’t what we expected. It wasn’t what we planned on. But the way he responded was really special. He’s grown so much.”

Traore finished the season averaging 9.5 points and a team-high 8.5 rebounds per game. 

‘I’m incredibly optimistic’

Now, it’s time to look ahead. So what’s in store for 2022-23 and what could the roster look like?

The coaching staff no doubt is excited about the progress of Traore and Ally Atiki and they are hoping that Caleb Lohner’s strong performance in the NIT will carry over to next season. Gideon George also showed flashes of brilliance, including a career-high 27 points in the NIT win over Northern Iowa.

“I’m really optimistic. I think our future is incredibly bright. These guys have done an unbelievable job of winning a lot of games and, more importantly, laying a foundation of what our program is supposed to be,” Pope said. “We have a lot of work to do and we have to get a lot better. I’m incredibly optimistic. I’m really proud of what we’ve done the last three years and I’m super excited about what we’re going to do in the next three.”

Next year will be BYU’s final season in the West Coast Conference before joining the Big 12, widely regarded as the toughest league in college basketball, in 2023-24. 

Senior guards Alex Barcello and Te’Jon Lucas finished their respective collegiate careers Wednesday. Barcello, who played three seasons for the Cougars after transferring from Arizona, finished with 1,319 career points, No. 25 all-time in the program. 

All about recruiting

Pope and his staff will be busy over the next several weeks and months recruiting and reshaping the roster, knowing they need to replace Barcello and Lucas. The Cougars will also need to bolster their post presence.

It’s uncertain whether forward Seneca Knight, who missed the final month of the season due to a thumb injury, will return to Provo.  

Among the guards already on the roster include Spencer Johnson, Trevin Knell, Hunter Erickson, Trey Stewart, Nate Hansen and Casey Brown. 

Guards Richie Saunders (Wasatch Academy) and Dallin Hall (Fremont High) and Tanner Toolson (Vancouver, Washington) each signed with BYU in 2020 and are set to return from their missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Cincinnati guard Mike Saunders, Jr. has entered the transfer portal and Cougar coaches are likely to pursue him. Saunders played at Wasatch Academy with Lohner and Traore. 

Meanwhile, Sean East, the top-rated JUCO point guard in the country, reportedly attended Wednesday’s game at the Marriott Center. He’s been one of the coaching staff’s recruiting targets for a while. 

College basketball has changed dramatically due to the transfer portal. Pope has taken advantage of it over the years.

“It’s dynamic everywhere. That’s going to be changing every single day as we move forward. It’s free agency now,” Pope said. “We’ll put all those pieces together and it will be an everyday discussion now in terms of where we go with that. I think we’re in a really good spot. I’m excited about what we can do this spring.”

About 24 hours after BYU’s season-ending loss to WSU, Pope was scheduled to hit the recruiting trail. He said he was scheduled to board a red-eye flight Thursday night. 

“We’re going to hit it hard and continue to grow this roster and this team,” he said. “We’ll let our guys breathe for a few days and decompress. Then we’ll start in on some postseason conversations.”

With his third season at the helm in the books, Pope is pleased with what his players accomplished amid difficult, unforeseen challenges. 

“In terms of this season and this team, I’m really proud of these guys,” he said. “They had unbelievable fight and heart and kept coming back through adversity and won a lot of games. I’m really proud of what they did.”