BYU coach Mark Pope promised the 2022-23 season would be an adventure.

And it was.

With a roster featuring a bunch of young, inexperienced players, the Cougars were consistently inconsistent. Like a box of chocolates, you never really knew what you were going to get.

“We talked about it before the season. We knew about the challenges we were going to face and things would be complicated.” — BYU coach Mark Pope

“We talked about it before the season,” Pope said. “We knew about the challenges we were going to face and things would be complicated.”

There were the head-scratching losses — a one-point setback in Salt Lake City against South Dakota, which finished No. 298 in the NCAA’s NET rankings; and a 12-point loss at Pepperdine (No. 201), which finished last in the West Coast Conference. 

And there were a pair of gut-wrenching one-point home losses against two nationally ranked teams — Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s.

Meanwhile, BYU led most of the way at nationally ranked San Diego State, which advanced to the Sweet 16, before falling. And the Cougars rallied from a 23-point deficit against Dayton before eking out an overtime victory in The Bahamas. Then they defeated nationally ranked Creighton — which has also reached the Sweet 16 — in Las Vegas and they beat rival Utah at home. 

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BYU enjoyed a little run in the WCC tournament with wins over Portland and Loyola Marymount before falling behind by Saint Mary’s by 26 in the second half, cutting the deficit to three in the final minute, and then losing in what turned out to be its final game of the season and last game as a member of the WCC.

For just the third time in 20 years, the Cougars failed to qualify for either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. Had they made just a handful of plays at the end of those one-point losses, their postseason fate could have been different.

Instead, BYU posted its first losing conference record since 2004-05 and finished No. 85 in the NET. 

Resilience

As BYU’s coach reflected on the season as a whole, he’s proud of what his team accomplished under the circumstances. 

“These guys were facing big odds. It was a new and young group. The fact that these guys went through some hard stuff and just kept coming back with the view of getting better, I’m super proud of that and our guys,” Pope said. “I’m incredibly encouraged and excited about moving forward. We know this is a long journey. There are probably very few places and programs that can pull it off to do it like we’re trying to do it. I think we will be able to do it and I’m excited about the process.”

During his season-ending interviews with his players, Pope said a unanimous theme emerged. They all talked about the team’s resilience. And he considers that the biggest positive from this season that the Cougars can take with them into next season.

 

“Super proud of how resilient we were. We built a standard of, sometimes things go wrong but we’re going to come compete. If you have that in your organization, and guys have felt it and believe it and are convicted by it, it’s everything you need for growth. That’s super exciting to me,” Pope said. “This resilient piece was so important for us this year as we’re so young and it’s going to be 100 times more important for us next year as we move into the Big 12.

“That’s going to be the key for us, to eventually get to the top of this mountain — just being resilient. I’m excited that these guys have set a terrific foundation for that. They know what it means, they know what it feels like and we didn’t know that a year ago because everybody was so new.”

Making progress

One of BYU’s most glaring weaknesses early in the season was turnovers.

“We had multiple games where we had 20 or close to 20 turnovers. But in the last eight games, we’ve been in the top-ninth percentile in turnovers,” said guard Spencer Johnson. “That’s been awesome. We’ve taken strides the whole season long in that, which is really encouraging.”

During the season, Pope talked frequently about his players “learning the price of winning.” 

That price requires a lot of work and sacrifices. Pope is convinced that the tough times his team experienced will pay off in the long run. 

“I’m so encouraged. Listen, we have a million miles to go and things are about to get so much harder,” he said. “But I don’t know if I could have asked more learning from this young group. They internalized so much and experienced so much for the first time and they kept coming back for more.

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“They kind of felt all the pain that can be associated with it. They felt the exhilaration. They understand how urgent it is walking into every possession of a game to try to win. They also understand that regardless of what happens at any point in a game, they still have the power to make things right, come back and fix it. The fact that they’ve been able to put all those experiences into their hearts so they can match the words with their experiences, I think is incredibly encouraging.

“This is a really special group. What they took in from this season is invaluable,” he continued. “We know that we have a daunting task ahead of us. But I’m super excited to start that climb with these guys because they proved a lot this year — mostly, they proved who they are and what they’re about.”

Next season’s roster

The Cougars lose a pair of seniors, Rudi Williams and Gideon George

From there, who knows how the transfer portal might affect this team, with players leaving and new ones taking their place. 

Freshman Braeden Moore, who redshirted this season, entered the transfer portal over the weekend.

BYU boasts a nucleus of young players that gained invaluable experience, including freshmen Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders. Sophomore Fousseyni Traore was the Cougars’ leading scorer and rebounder. Sophomore Jaxson Robinson showed flashes of his potential, while sophomore Atiki Ally Atiki took some strides in a reserve role.

Johnson, who shot a team-leading 46% from 3-point range, provided experience and leadership. 

Guard Trevin Knell was sidelined for the entire season after undergoing shoulder surgery last summer, while guard Tanner Toolson played early in the season but an injury took him out of action.

Noah Waterman seemed to struggle finding his role, while Trey Stewart saw limited action. Tredyn Christensen carved out some playing time due to the Cougars’ lack of size. 

BYU didn’t sign any new players in November. Jake Whalin, who signed with the Cougars in 2020, is returning home from a mission. He was a nominee for the McDonald’s All-America team out of Timpview High. 

Pope said he’ll be aggressive in the transfer portal, looking to add talent, depth and experience to his roster going into next season. 

BYU head coach Mark Pope talks to an official during game against Weber State in Provo on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. BYU won 63-57.
BYU coach Mark Pope talks to an official while playing the Weber State Wildcats in Provo on Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. BYU won 63-57. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News