Mark Pope saw his squad take the whip to LMU and Pacific pretty well at home last week.

“We’re improving,” he told media folks afterward.

Quite frankly, they were dominating wins over a pair of league opponents they should have spanked and did so by an average of 22 points.

The guards were impactful.

Gideon George created chaos.

Fouse Traore used his girth and muscle mass to cause guys to bounce off him on shots and rebounds.

Whatever’s transpired this season, BYU can still do damage heading toward March.

“Winning is not enough,” Pope told reporters Tuesday. “We have to win and get better to have a chance to make a push.”

If the progress of Traore and his point guards are any kind of meter, things are looking up.

Traore really is remarkable. For a 6-foot-7 guy, he demands space, and when he turns he creates space. When he goes after a rebound, he has the arm length and strength to rob guys. He is third in the league in rebounds, just over eight a game with less minutes played than anybody in the top 10.

This is one of the most frustratingly fun BYU teams in years.  

One never knows what’s next.

“We are focused on peaking at the right time,” said guard Spencer Johnson. “We feel we can play with anybody in the league.”

The Cougars still have plenty of warts, but when they force other teams into mistakes, get steals and win the battle of the boards on each end of the court, they know they can stay with anybody in the West Coast Conference. 

It had to be satisfying to see the energy, intensity and effort on defense that simply smothered these two WCC opponents. The defensive effort covered up a lot of season-long struggles to convert from distance and find consistency on offense.

Now comes the big challenge of heading into a road trip that includes games at Pepperdine and Gonzaga. Pope must find a way to keep that energy on the road. The last time this group took off for the coast the effort was as weak as any Cougars team that’s packed suitcases since Pope took over for Dave Rose.

And there is the challenge for Pope: consistency.

Pope should be encouraged by the marked improvement of his point guards in cutting down turnovers. Against Pacific on Saturday, senior Rudi Williams and freshman Dallin Hall had zero turnovers. In last weekend’s wins the entire team had single-digit turnovers for the first time this season.

Pope’s team has proven it can go toe-to-toe with WCC leaders Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga at home — both one-point losses after holding leads with seconds to play.

But turnovers have been an albatross for the Cougars all year. So has inconsistent free-throw shooting, a key in close games where possessions have to count.

On the other hand, the Cougars are No. 1 in the league in steals at 7.8 per game, No. 2 in rebounds and No. 2 in blocks. 

With six games left, the bottom line for Pope’s squad is to get at least three victories. That would ensure them not having to play the first two rounds in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas.

The best chances to get those three wins will come Thursday at Pepperdine, a team that just won its first league game last week, and home games against San Francisco on Feb. 16 and Santa Clara on Feb. 25, Senior Night.

Can it be done?  

Yes.  

But it will take consistency, single-digit turnovers and at least nine buckets from distance in each of those games.

Traore has become a consistent post player for Pope and a building block for a struggling offense. He’s like a mini Paul Millsap, a player who has a strong, wide body and uses it like Charles Barkley. He fights through double and triple teams, physically grabs away offensive rebounds, and is effective underneath the basket when teammates get him the ball down low. He had a pair of double-doubles last weekend against some pretty decent big guys.

Pope’s team should be motivated.

All season long they’ve played before the most passionate fans in the league at the Marriott Center with the 14th-largest college crowd attendance in the country. Pope’s players ought to be anxious and hungry to deliver and reward the fans for their loyalty and support.

That crowd has been impressive all year long, even with witnessing losses to South Dakota and Utah Valley, they’ve shown up and delivered.

His team ought to also hunger for a little attention from the league BYU will be leaving after this season. BYU hasn’t been awarded a WCC player of the week the entire season. Yeah, perhaps they never deserved it. But it ought to tick somebody off a little.

Gonzaga has enjoyed four players of the week. Santa Clara has two. Saint Mary’s and LMU have had one each. Saint Mary’s has had Aidan Mahaney named WCC Freshman of the Week six times in the last six weeks and nine of the 13 weeks the honor has been dished out. 

BYU’s rookie Hall earned it once, back on Dec. 20th.

BYU players look to score during game against Pacific Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, at the Marriott Center. | Nate Edwards, BYU Photo