How close is BYU’s Mark Pope from reloading for the coming season?

Well, he’s got his work cut out for him. He’s a hybrid club shot away from the green.

He could use an experienced rim protector/post offensive threat taller than 6-foot-9. He could use a couple of guards and possibly a swingman. He needs shooters and consistent scorers.

Let’s take a look back at the night of Dec. 1, the game against crosstown Utah Valley. That game illustrated why BYU didn’t make the NCAA Tournament despite a 24-11 record.

Fresh off wins over Cleveland State, San Diego State, Oregon and Utah, the Cougars were considered a top-20 team. In the first minutes of that game in Orem, Pope lost Gavin Baxter to injury and then got pummeled by Mark Madsen’s team 72-65. In that game, UVU’s 6-11 Canadian sophomore, Fardaws Aimaq, had 24 points and 22 rebounds. The Cougars defense couldn’t handle guard Justin Harmon (24 points) after Alex Barcello found himself carrying the load.

The Cougars were soaring in late November, then turned into an above-average team after UVU put a dent in their season. Aimaq ended up the No. 3-ranked double-double creator, and the No. 2 rebounder in the nation. He used the transfer portal to land at Texas Tech in Big 12 Conference oil company NIL territory.

Pope’s season ended with a disappointing seed in the WCC tournament and a three-game run in the NIT.  

He could claim success and momentum in the development of freshman Fousseyni Traore as an inside scorer and rebounder. But his team needs big-time, elite outside scoring to make the NCAAs next year and it has to come from multiple bodies, not just a Barcello replacement alone.

BYU basketball gets commitment from transfer guard Rudi Williams
A BYU basketball game vs. a potential top 10 team has reportedly been scheduled

With Barcello gone, Pope needs a ballhandling leader, a guy who can dish and score. An elite level guy would be a dream. Reality is, he’s picking over the transfer portal, which numbered 1,690 faces on Monday morning. And that’s tough.

Pope went right after former Louisville signee Fredrick King, a four-star 6-foot-10 center from the Bahamas. It went down to the wire before King signed with Creighton in Mutual of Omaha NIL territory.

Can Pope stand pat with Atiki Ally Atiki and Fouss in the post next year?

“I feel great about Fouss and Atiki,” said former Cougar Mark Durrant, now a KSL analyst. “As good as they were last year, I think we’ll see a great improvement this next year, and those two will provide more than enough inside punch for BYU. The concern comes with depth.  Even if they stay healthy, which is a big IF after what we experienced last season, they will need bodies to fill minutes when Fouss and Atiki aren’t on the floor. BYU really needs to find one or two guys that can fill that role.”

Pope’s staff had identified guard Rudi Williams at Coastal Carolina in the transfer portal and signed him last weekend. Williams, a 6-2 guard who made a visit to San Diego State last week, is a Canadian who first played for Northeastern Oklahoma and Kansas State.

Williams is a candidate to replace the departed Barcello and has handles and range. He shoots over 50% from the field and a sizzling 45% from distance and he can finish at the rim and rebound. More importantly, he is very experienced and can help Dallin Hall, who is coming off a two-year mission.

With Williams on board, Pope has three more scholarships to play with.

Over the weekend, Pope’s staff believed they had a chance at Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis, a legitimate big-time scorer, but he announced Monday afternoon he was staying at Detroit Mercy, an area dominated by auto manufacturer’s NIL money for Michigan and Michigan State. A Chinese basketball maker looking to promote a GlowBall apparently found him an NIL deal to stay at his school for a reported six-figure deal.

The Cougars are interested in 6-foot-10 Mo Njie, a transfer from Eastern Michigan whom’s Robbie McCombs reported made a visit to Provo on Sunday. Njie is a former three-star recruit out of high school that the Cougars courted but never offered. His visit coincides with a visit from Kansas City forward Josiah Allick.

“The transfer portal has created an environment that welcomes constant change,” according to former Cougar and European League veteran Jonathan Tavernari. “Mark Pope’s philosophy has been to build from the portal. Aside from Rudi (probably starter) I’d imagine another big man or two might come from the portal to compliment Fouss. I’m hopeful Atiki is the first big off the bench, which will allow him to continue his progress and improvement.”

The one obvious feature of recruiting the transfer portal this spring is the impact of NIL money and deals. BYU is wading through this cautiously, apparently using Silicon Slopes connections and other collectives to do their thing.

Former BYU forward Gavin Baxter is transferring to Utah

Until Pope holds press availability, it is unknown publicly how BYU’s off-campus collective is holding up in so-called comparisons that recruits are examining in this new era.

Said Tavernari, “It sure feels like NIL talks are the main driving force behind choices in this transfer portal season. Good fit and situations seem to have taken a backseat to how much money a student-athlete can get. Right or wrong, that is the reality we are all witnessing right now.”

It will be interesting to understand how the cogs of NIL chatter are going.

Meanwhile, Pope remains working on an assistant coach hire to replace Chris Burgess. 

This early May, one cannot say there is a definitive look to Pope’s next season right now.

But that could be said of all our in-state programs.

Long live the transfer portal. And may the best NIL deal be with you.

BYU coach Mark Pope enjoys a moment on the sidelines with Trey Stewart during NIT victory over Long Beach State in Provo.
BYU coach Mark Pope has some fun with guard Trey Stewart (1) during an NIT game against Long Beach State at the Marriott Center in Provo on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News