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‘We are the second-chance school’: How BYU coach Mark Pope views the transfer portal

As the BYU coach builds next year’s roster, he and his staff will continue to be active in the transfer portal

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BYU will host Washington State at the Marriott Center in the NIT quarterfinals.

BYU coach Mark Pope high-fives fans after the Cougars defeated Northern Iowa in an NIT game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 19, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

As usual, BYU coach Mark Pope and his staff are very active in the transfer portal this spring.

Since the season ended a couple of weeks ago in the NIT quarterfinals, there have been multiple reports of the Cougars showing interest in players in the portal from all around the country.

During his three years at the helm of BYU basketball, and before that at Utah Valley University, Pope has relied heavily on the transfer portal, bringing in players like Jake Toolson (UVU), Alex Barcello (Arizona), Matt Haarms (Purdue), Brandon Averette (UVU), Te’Jon Lucas (Milwaukee) and Seneca Knight(LSU).

At the same time, BYU has also lost players in like Connor Harding, Wyatt Lowell and Kolby Lee to the portal. In 2021-22, Lowell averaged 13.4 points per game at Snow College, while Harding averaged 10.4 points per game for UVU. 

During the season, Pope offered his philosophy and perspective on the transfer portal. 

“It’s good and bad. It’s everything. Everything is good and bad but the portal is what we’ve got. What we’ll do is focus on the greatness of the portal. The portal is a great thing,” he said. “That’s what I choose to focus on. I’ve seen guys come into my program that are feeling a little bit broken and find new life and new determination.

“The change is so scary and so humbling that it lets you start over or reset. For the guy in the right spot in his life, it can change his life forever. I’ve also seen guys leave my program, a little bit hurt and a little bit struggling, and go somewhere else and actually find new life to their game. I think what I’m going to do is choose to take this portal, all the positives of it.”

Pope knows from personal experience about transferring. He transferred from Washington to Kentucky during his playing days and he won a national championship with the Wildcats. 

Assistant coach Chris Burgess transferred from Duke to Utah during his career. 

According to Pope, BYU is a place that embodies a clean slate for athletes. 

“I believe in second chances, man. I believe in second chances when I’m the good guy and when I’m the bad guy. Because these guys get one chance to do this, one run through college athletics,” he said. “So if the best thing for a guy is to take the hit and go through that process, which is a really tough process, and get a fresh start and if he’s ready to use it, let’s go. It’s awesome.

“We’re a school of redemption. That’s what BYU is. That’s what we believe in. That’s the heart of everything we believe in here at BYU is second chances. We are the second-chance school. That’s the Atonement of Jesus Christ — that’s what it is. If you think about this transfer portal as second chances, then I think it is a beautiful thing that fits in incredibly with what BYU stands for. I really do.”

‘It’s just how you live’

Barcello symbolizes making the most of a second chance.

The guard from Chandler, Arizona, signed with Arizona out of high school but in two seasons with the Wildcats, Barcello languished on the bench and had lost his love for the game. 

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BYU guard Alex Barcello dribbles during game against Northern Iowa in an NIT game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 19, 2022. After a couple of tough, frustrating years at Arizona, Barcello transferred to BYU and flourished.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

In three seasons at BYU, Barcello became a star and was named to the All-West Coast Conference first team twice and honorable mention All-America. He not only ended up No. 25 all-time in scoring in program history, but also became an ambassador for the program and the school.

Though he’s not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Barcello thrived in Provo. 

“I didn’t get the best opportunity at Arizona. I love Arizona. Things didn’t work out and I had to move on from that,” he said. “Being here and seeing the opportunity I’ve been given here, everything that’s come of it — the fans, the people here, how they’ve embraced me. It means everything.”

Barcello was attracted to the values of BYU and the coaching staff’s approach. 

“These coaches aren’t going to lie to you,” he said. “They’re going to tell you how it is and how hard it’s going to be. Don’t come here if you don’t want to work. I was like, ‘Perfect. That lines up with what I do.’”

Last year, Barcello was involved in the recruitment of two other non-Latter-day Saint transfers, Lucas and Knight. 

“Not a lot of people are used to the culture here. When you’re recruiting, it’s something you have to talk about. But when it comes down to basketball, it’s do you want to win,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve won. We haven’t won how we want to, referring to championships. They both wanted to come here because they’re winners and they want to win. Or they haven’t won as much as they’ve wanted to and they want to win more.”

Barcello loves the commitment that’s part of the BYU experience.

“Really, it’s just how you live. I think the way people live here is extraordinary. I think that’s why sports all across the board win big. Because we hold ourselves to a certain standard,” he said. “I know our athletic director and coaches preach that to us. It’s a fun place to be as long as your values line up with the same values, then there should be no problems here. That’s what I told (Lucas and Knight) in recruiting. They live the right way and it’s easy. We meshed well together.”

Historic moment

Pope’s willingness to look everywhere in the recruiting process has translated into bringing in players from various places and from various backgrounds.

In February, Pope put a starting lineup on the floor that featured five players that aren’t Latter-day Saints for the first time in school history. Four of them were Black players — Fousseyni Traore, Gideon George, Lucas and Knight. The fifth was Barcello. 

While it was a significant moment for the program, Pope said he wasn’t trying to make a statement. 

“We didn’t start four Black players, we didn’t start five players that aren’t members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for any other reason than that the game told us that’s what we should have done,” Pope said. “That’s really a beautiful thing if, as a world, we keep moving closer toward the decision-making is based on that and nothing else.

“It was a great opportunity and a really terrific moment for our guys. It’s not a goal here at BYU. But it’s something that’s good for BYU, too.”

Lucas was proud to be part of such a moment in his only season in Provo. 

“It was definitely an honor. It was great to show the diversity that we have at BYU. We’ve been talking about diversity and inclusion with a lot of people. It was a great moment to show that it doesn’t matter your race or belief,” he said. “It’s a faith-based school and most people have a little bit of faith. You can come here and be successful, no matter your skin color or background.

“We didn’t want it to be a big deal about race. That’s just how the game played out. It wasn’t something we set up … to make history for one day. That’s how it ended up playing out. I was honored to be a part of something special like that. Hopefully, it’s just the start of something that could possibly change.”

For Lucas, BYU was his third chance.

Lucas started his career at the Illinois before transferring to his hometown school, Milwaukee. After last season, he was looking for a fresh start. He was recruited by numerous schools, including national powerhouse Kansas. Ultimately, he chose BYU. 

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Illinois guard Te’Jon Lucas defends Indiana guard Josh Newkirk in Bloomington, Ind., Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. After beginning his career playing for the Illini, Lucas transferred to his hometown school of Milwaukee before ultimately landing at BYU to play for coach Mark Pope.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

When he arrived on campus, Lucas decided to immerse himself in BYU’s culture, which included attending games involving other Cougars teams. 

“I just wanted to soak it in while I was here and not just be a basketball player here — I wanted to experience different things, go to different sporting events, go to different places and explore Utah,” he said. “I had never been to Utah before. I didn’t want to say that I just went to the (Marriott Center) and the annex. You never know what can happen or when I’ll be back in Utah. I love to soak in wherever I am.”

Transitioning into the Big 12

Next season will mark the Cougars’ final season in the West Coast Conference. It figures that during this offseason, they’re not only preparing for the 2022-23 campaign, but also for the 2023-24 season, when they’ll be competing in the Big 12, which is widely regarded as the toughest conference in college basketball. 

The Cougars certainly need to improve their size, depth and physicality.

With that in mind, will BYU pursue transfers with more than one year of eligibility remaining to provide some continuity when joining the Power Five league?

“I think BYU is probably looking to buy more than rent right now. I don’t know that one-year guys help you a ton,” Greg Wrubell, Voice of the Cougars, recently told “BYU Sports Nation.” “You still want to win a WCC championship and a push toward that would be great. But I think you’re looking for guys with a little more longevity, the two- or three-year (player) if not a true freshman who can be with you for four or five.

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Kansas’ David McCormack plays against Villanova during semifinal round of the Men’s Final Four NCAA tournament, Saturday, April 2, 2022, in New Orleans. The Big 12 Jayhawks defeated North Carolina in the NCAA championship game.

David J. Phillip, Associated Press

“I don’t know that one-year guys are going to help a ton or as much as maybe they might have otherwise, whereas two- and three-year guys can be foundational pieces for that transition into the Big 12. I don’t know if Mark Pope is thinking this way but maybe when he goes out and looks at guys, he’s thinking, ‘This is a guy that in two years I can be leaning on to help us win games in a very, very tough league’ they’re going into.”

Building through transfers and freshmen

At BYU, where many of its athletes choose to serve missions, building a roster is a balancing act.

Last fall, Pope landed the highest-rated recruit in school history — four-star guard Collin Chandler. Chandler is leaving for a mission and isn’t scheduled to be part of the program until the 2024-25 season, the Cougars’ second year in the Big 12. 

Talented guards like Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders are expected to join the roster when they return home from their missions this summer, following a two-year layoff from basketball. 

Transfers can play immediately without penalty and can shore up weaknesses and fill voids on a roster. 

At the same time, there’s value to recruiting players that can “grow old” and play together for years. 

Freshmen Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki — a pair of post players that hail from Africa — were thrust into main roles this season after Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter went down for the season. They went through some growing pains but the experience they gained will continue to pay off for years to come.

The 6-foot-6, 254-pound Traore became a star and collected 273 rebounds, the most by a freshman in program history. 

Former BYU star Tyler Haws, the school’s all-time leading scorer, can see both sides of the transfer portal. 

“I think it’s good and bad. My first instinct, because of my experience, is that there are guys that are ready to go. You look at what Fouss has done as a true freshman. He has all of the skills and tools to be a great four man in college basketball. All he knows is to play hard,” said Haws, now a BYUtv analyst. “There are some advantages there with freshmen. That’s how I was my freshman year. I went all-out, all the time.

“There’s some beauty in that in college basketball. But there’s definitely also room for the veteran, experienced guy to come in and Te’Jon has had a huge impact on the program and the locker room. It is hard for some guys.

“The grass isn’t always greener from where you’re at. I think there are a lot of players that are going through that. It’s easy to transfer now. I don’t like to see that happen, because it’s not working out, they think it’s going to be better somewhere else,” Haws added. “That’s not every situation.

“There are times where guys are broken and it’s not working. Going somewhere else is the best option. Connor Harding is a good example of that. He had a great season at UVU. A good mix of both would be my approach. There are freshmen out there that are ready to go and ready to give you all they have.”

While out on the recruiting trail, preparing for next season as well as for the challenges ahead in the Big 12, Pope is scouring the country, and the world, for players that will fit in seamlessly at BYU, including players like Barcello, that are looking for a second chance.