KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Here is a quick takeaway from the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Tipoff media day event at T-Mobile Center in downtown Kansas City on Wednesday: Most of the 13 schools that BYU is joining in the league seem to be far more concerned about facing the Marriott Center crowd in Provo than they are facing the Cougars themselves.

“Going into that game, we heard about what a great environment, what great fans, BYU had. I remember that was an outstanding game. Came down to the last seconds. One of the louder places we played in, and have played in, period. I have great respect for their fanbase, and game management, how they do things.” — Baylor coach Scott Drew

Asked about what impact BYU will have on the conference that many consider to be the best in the country when it comes to men’s basketball, most coaches either brought up coach Mark Pope’s reputation as a winner or the Cougars’ 19,000-seat venue and how it can get rocking when BYU is playing well.

Baylor coach Scott Drew led the way in that regard, recalling memories of an 86-83 Bears win in Provo when Dave Rose was coaching BYU. Attendance was listed at 22,700 for that game, which occurred before capacity was diminished due to padded seats replacing benches in some areas of the arena that opened in 1971.

“Going into that game, we heard about what a great environment, what great fans, BYU had,” Drew said. “I remember that was an outstanding game. Came down to the last seconds. One of the louder places we played in, and have played in, period. I have great respect for their fanbase, and game management, how they do things.”

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Pope didn’t downplay that perceived home-court advantage when it was his turn to talk Wednesday, saying the Cougars’ student section is “legendary” and that excitement is so high in Provo that season tickets sold out before they were available to people not associated with the booster group, the Cougar Club.

Pope said the Cougars will need all the help they can get in the league that represents a huge step up for BYU, which was above average in the WCC, but never dominant, thanks to the presence of Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.

“Everybody that plays in this conference has the opportunity to go up against the best teams in the country every single night, for 18 straight games,” Pope said.

Tuesday, commissioner Brett Yormark said when the four corners schools — Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State — join the conference next year to give it 16 teams, the likelihood is that the men will play 20 conference games and the women 18.

Wednesday, he said the 20-game plan calls for each team to play 10 opponents once and five opponents twice.

That probably means Utah and BYU will meet twice each season, just as they did back when they were both members of the Mountain West and WAC conferences.

“You don’t have to go hunt for Quad 1 games or great opponents or great venues or exposure,” Pope said of one of the best parts of being in the Power Five league. “It’s all here, ever present for you, and you just have to perform. That’s a real blessing for every program in this conference.”

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Texas coach Rodney Terry said he doesn’t expect any drop-off from four new members this year, although Cincinnati is picked 11th, BYU 13th and UCF 14th. The other newcomer, Houston, is picked second after the Cougars went 33-4 last year and won the American Athletic Conference.

“With addition of the four schools coming in, Kelvin Sampson at Houston brings in a Final Four team. Mark (Pope) is doing a great job at BYU. Cincinnati has been an historically strong program,” Terry said. “Again, there are no nights off in our league. Every night you have to bring your ‘A’ game, whether you are at home or on the road.”

‘A dream come true’

As expected, the Cougars who represented BYU at the media event — Spencer Johnson, Dallin Hall and Fousseyni Traore — said they are thrilled to be in the Big 12, while being careful to not denigrate the WCC and the competition it provided the past 12 seasons.

“It is definitely a new challenge for all of us. None of us have ever been here before, so it is going to be fun to come in here and compete against the best in the nation and see where we stack up,” Johnson said. “To do it together with these guys is a dream come true, honestly.”

Johnson described the 2023-24 Cougars as a cohesive group that plays well together.

“We are confident, resilient, and we shoot the lights out of the ball,” Johnson said.

Another big topic was BYU getting picked 13th.

“I feel like everybody is counting us out, you know? So we say, ‘Well, we gotta go prove them (wrong), that we actually belong in the Big 12,’” Traore said. “So we will just have to see.”

Ex-BYU forward Caleb Lohner finds a home

BYU forward Caleb Lohner works on Long Beach State’s Jordan Roberts during NIT game at the Marriott Center, March 16, 2022.
BYU forward Caleb Lohner works on Long Beach State 49ers forward Jordan Roberts during game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Lohner transferred to Big 12 foe Baylor in the offseason. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Speaking of Drew and Baylor, the school in Waco, Texas, was able to land former BYU forward Caleb Lohner last year after the native Texan entered the transfer portal after two seasons with the Cougars.

Drew said the 6-foot-8, 235-pounder has flourished in central Texas, having grown up in the Dallas area and having attended Flower Mound High before transferring to Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant.

“Caleb Lohner, great young man. Fun to be with every day. Someone you can talk basketball, but you can also talk life and so many other things,” Drew said. “He’s got a ton of hobbies, from building cars to surfing, to whatever. So great, great young man.”

BYU plays at Baylor on Jan. 9 and hosts the Bears, and Lohner, hopefully, on Feb. 20.

Lohner averaged 7.0 points and 6.7 rebounds for BYU in his 62 games with the Cougars, having started in 44. He shot 43.9% from the field.

He averaged 3.2 points and 3.5 rebounds for Baylor last season, getting 12.3 minutes per game. He shot 54.7% from the field.