Of all the questions BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe fielded Tuesday in Las Vegas when he chatted with reporters from the Deseret News and KSLsports.com prior to receiving the prestigious Toner Award at a black-tie affair that night, a query about the state of the Cougars’ men’s basketball program was probably the easiest to answer.
“Yeah, we have the No. 2 NET ranking (now No. 1) in the country,” Holmoe said with a big smile. “So I would think we would be happy with where we’re at.”
“So there is like a mutual trust that just goes on, and after every dead ball we bring everybody together, talk about what we need to do. There’s the standard that’s been set, right? So we are doing all those little things that catapult our offense forward.” — BYU guard Trevin Knell
Even then, that was an understatement.
The 8-0 Cougars are also ranked No. 14 in the nation and one of only 13 undefeated teams in the country heading into Saturday’s 5 p.m. MST showdown with rival Utah (6-2), which would absolutely love to take BYU down a notch or two at the Huntsman Center.
“Here we are getting ready to go into our first season in the Big 12 and we are poised and in a very good position,” Holmoe said. “Everyone understands that we will hit the gauntlet in a few weeks and we are in a great position to go into that.
“I think that (coach Mark Pope) continues to improve and the future looks bright with the kids in the program, and the kids on the recruiting trail, and we will just continue to build that brand, and keep recruiting.”
Indeed, six of the 13 unbeatens are in the Big 12. The Cougars open conference play Jan. 6 at home against Cincinnati, then play at one of those unbeatens — No. 6 Baylor — on Jan. 8 in Waco, Texas.
At the Big 12 football media days in July, with BYU basketball coming off a 19-15 season (7-9 in the West Coast Conference), Holmoe was not quite as bullish on the program, saying the Cougars “need to focus on getting better and better and better and we will eventually fit in and start to climb the ladder.”
This start is far better than anyone anticipated, including the 19-year boss of BYU athletics.
“If anybody knows Mark Pope or has seen him coach, seen his passion and intensity for the game, and love of the game (it isn’t a complete surprise),” Holmoe said. “He gives everything from morning, noon to night to that game and his team. … He is involved in every single aspect of that program, and I think he has done an excellent job.”
Heading into Thursday night’s games, the Cougars led the nation in scoring margin (32.9 per game), assists (22.4), 3-pointers made (12.9) and second-half points (49.9).
Pope said after his team walloped Evansville 96-55 Tuesday night that the Cougars aren’t focusing on their NET ranking, or their No. 6 ranking in Kenpom.com, or anything else of that sort.
“Our guys are kinda lost in the details right now. And that is what makes this super fun,” Pope said. “I have never coached a team that has gone on a run like this where they just have been totally focused on the objective on the court.
“They haven’t been distracted by the game, they haven’t been distracted by the opponent,” he continued. “They haven’t been distracted by rankings, or media or wins. You know, sometimes wins can be distracting. So I think that this is super fun. Let’s take it for a ride and see where we get.”
It will be a short ride to the Huntsman Center this weekend, but a long ride home if the Cougars can’t handle their first true road game of the 2023-24 season.
BYU will definitely be shorthanded — junior forward Fousseyni Traore remains out with a nagging hamstring injury and guard Dawson Baker, a transfer from UC Irvine, is still a couple weeks away from returning from offseason foot surgery.
Traore started in BYU’s first six games before the injury caused him to miss the second half against North Carolina State and the Fresno State and Evansville games. He was averaging 10.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.
Utah could be shorthanded if guard Wilguens Exacte Jr. and all-Pac-12 center Branden Carlson can’t go. Neither played in the Utes’ 88-86 win over Southern Utah on Tuesday, a game that was not as close as the final score indicated.
BYU guard Trevin Knell, who is averaging 12.1 points per game and shooting 46% from 3-point range, said the Cougars are thriving because they trust each other.
“So there is like a mutual trust that just goes on, and after every dead ball we bring everybody together, talk about what we need to do,” Knell said. “There’s the standard that’s been set, right? So we are doing all those little things that catapult our offense forward.”