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‘We are so desperate to get better’: How will BYU move forward after taking a step backward?

The Cougars have a bye Thursday and a huge challenge Saturday when No. 22 Saint Mary’s visits the Marriott Center.

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Gonzaga guard Rasir Bolton knocks the ball loose from BYU forward Gideon George during game at the Marriott Center.

Gonzaga guard Rasir Bolton knocks the ball loose from BYU forward Gideon George during game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. Turnovers have plagued the Cougars in WCC play this season.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

BYU coach Mark Pope admitted that his team took a step backward last weekend.

The Cougars were swept in the Bay Area, falling to Santa Clara Thursday and San Francisco Saturday.

“We had all of Sunday off, everybody could just get the bitterness out. (Monday) on the court everyone came with a fresh mind and a fresh heart. We had a good day at practice and another good day as well (Tuesday). Guys have just kicked last weekend under the rug and we’re getting ready for Saturday.” — BYU guard Rudi Williams

This week, BYU is going back to the drawing board. The Cougars have a bye Thursday and a huge challenge Saturday (8 p.m., MST, ESPN2) when No. 22 Saint Mary’s (18-4, 7-0) visits the Marriott Center. 

BYU (14-9, 4-4) sits in fifth place halfway through its final West Coast Conference schedule.

“We are so desperate to get better and we can’t afford backwards steps. It happens in growing and if I was more mature and a little bit of an adult, I’d be willing to accept that. We’re just running out of time,” Pope said. “We have so much work to do, so many ways that we need to get better, so many ways we need to get more reps and I’m feeling the pressure of time right now.

“Our guys feel the pressure of time right now and are trying to get better,” he continued. “I hope that we’re super frustrated when our engagement matchup with the standard we have here; that is super important that you have standards that you never dip below or never allow yourself to dip below. I felt like we were flirting with that on Saturday.”

So what approach is Pope taking with his team? 

“It’s the same as if we took a step forward. You have to come in the next day and get better,” he said. “That’s a really rare quality for players, teams, organizations or families or anything else to be able to stay focused on growing. It’s really rare when you’re in that backwards progress and still stay hyper focused on moving forward.”

Last weekend, the Cougars struggled with turnovers, struggled to defend and struggled to match the physicality of Santa Clara and USF. 

How are the players feeling at this stage of the season?

“Obviously, when you go on the road and lose two straight, no one is happy about that,” said guard Rudi Williams. “We had all of Sunday off, everybody could just get the bitterness out. (Monday) on the court everyone came with a fresh mind and a fresh heart. We had a good day at practice and another good day as well (Tuesday). Guys have just kicked last weekend under the rug and we’re getting ready for Saturday.”

BYU had a total of 34 turnovers in the two games in northern California. Many of those happened in the first half, as the Cougars dug themselves a hole early against both the Broncos and the Dons.

BYU Saint Mary’s

Cougars on the air


Saint Mary’s (18-4, 7-0)
at BYU (14-9, 4-4)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
Marriott Center
TV: ESPN2
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM

“What I’d like to see is us getting better. Sometimes it’s just the low-hanging fruit,” Pope said of the turnovers issue. “At San Francisco, we had one less turnover than them and we were still never really in that game, so it’s not like the turnover comparison was the deciding factor in that game. It has been an issue that we’ve talked about so much that it is the easy place to go again, but it certainly is one of the issues that we’re facing.”

Williams explained why his team had a bevy of turnovers last weekend.

“I can start with Thursday. I thought we were pretty caught off guard by how physical Santa Clara was,” he said. “We had seen it on film and the coaches told us but it was a different story when actually we got on the court and felt it. For myself, when I checked into the game I was like, ‘These dudes hit you when you come across the lane.’ On Saturday, (the Dons) were pretty aggressive and tried to speed you up.”

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BYU Cougars guard Rudi Williams jumps for a rebound while playing against Weber State in Provo on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. After suffering a pair of tough losses last week, Williams and the Cougars hope to get back on track Saturday when Saint Mary’s visits the Marriott Center.

Ben B. Braun, Deseret News