BYU basketball coach Mark Pope has a reputation for making hyperbolic statements. 

But when he talks about what his program is facing when it joins the Big 12 next season, he’s probably spot on. 

“You want the honest answer? I feel sorry for them. ... I’ve been in a lot of leagues with the best coaches in America and the best players in America. I’m telling you right now, (the Big 12 is) the hardest league I’ve ever coached in. Ever.” — West Virginia coach Bob Huggins on how he feels for the new members of the Big 12

“We’ve barely reached base camp one of this climb up Mount Everest,” Pope said. “We’re super humbled by where we have to go. We know this isn’t a one-day or a one-month or a one-year process. But we’re engaged and can’t wait to keep moving forward every day.”

The Big 12 has been the highest-rated basketball league in the country for several years now. The Cougars will be among the newest members of the conference, along with Houston, Cincinnati and UCF. 

“Clearly, we have a lot of work to do in any league we’re going to be in, especially the best league in the country. It’s super scary to play the long game in athletics,” Pope said. “But for us, it’s the right thing to do. I’ve got all the faith in the world that it’s going to pay incredible dividends.

“We’re definitely playing the long game with that in mind. It’s going to be a really chaotic and taxing and stressful and worrisome journey. But all the great journeys are that way. We’re paying close attention to it all the time.”

With the Marriott Center and the annex, BYU is set when it comes to having Power Five facilities. But what about the product on the floor?

“For us,” Pope said, “our main focus is elevating our play so we can be competitive in this league.”

It will be a daunting task to be competitive in the Big 12. Just ask West Virginia coach Bob Huggins

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During a recent interview with The Field of 68, Huggins was asked about the four schools moving into the Big 12 this July. 

“You want the honest answer? I feel sorry for them. They have absolutely no idea what they are getting into,” Huggins said. “I’ve been in a lot of leagues with the best coaches in America and the best players in America. I’m telling you right now, (the Big 12 is) the hardest league I’ve ever coached in. Ever.”

Huggins added that there are a lot of factors that make it so difficult. 

“(The Big 12 has) the best fan bases. You go in and they may be 3-17 and they’ve got 14,000 people sitting in there,” he said. “It’s unbelievable, the fan support, how good the players are, how good the coaching is. It is such a hard, hard league and you’ve got to go through it twice. I’m gonna tell you, they’re not ready for that.”

In a recent story in The Athletic about playing in the Big 12, Baylor associate head coach John Jakus, who spent three seasons as Gonzaga’s director of operations, talked about life in the Big 12 and how the Zags might fare in the league if it were to receive an invitation

“My first year at Baylor, I was woken up. It’s not, can you beat somebody once? It’s can you go to Kansas, lose, turn around on Monday, and play a top-10 game at home? he said. “There’s this emotional basketball wear on you that you don’t have if you play them once.”

“If they’re going to go play at Kansas on Saturday and fly back to Spokane and Texas comes to Spokane on Monday — all those little things with 18-to-22-year-olds behind the scenes that people don’t see, they can cause you to lose a game. Emotion can cause you to lose a game.”

In October 2021, the Deseret News attended Big 12 basketball media day in Kansas City and talked to almost every head coach and a dozen players about the rigors of playing in the conference.  

“It’s a physical league. It’s a league where, top to bottom, every team is competitive,” said Baylor’s Flo Thamba. “We’re all capable of making it to March Madness. If I had to speak to BYU, I’d say, ‘You have to bring it every night. There’s no easy games. You can’t take a break any night. It’s going to be competitive from the moment that you come in.’”

Kansas State’s Mike McGuirl added that playing in the Big 12 is a grind every night.

“The toughest part about it would be the physical toll on your body. It’s a physical league. We play hard,” he said. “Being able to bounce back and be fully ready for the next game physically. Two games a week. Every game is a battle. That’s the toughest part.”

TCU guard Mike Miles Jr. gestures during second-round NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 19, 2023, in Denver. Says TCU’s Mike Miles of the Big 12: “It’s how physical it is. In this conference, it’s a lot tougher, harder, faster, stronger. The physicality in this conference is different from any other conference, honestly.” | David Zalubowski, Associated Press

Said TCU’s Mike Miles: “It’s how physical it is. In this conference, it’s a lot tougher, harder, faster, stronger. The physicality in this conference is different from any other conference, honestly.”

West Virginia guard Sean McNeil said there’s no better place to play than the Big 12. 

“Players want to play on the biggest stage against the best competition. Having the best competition comes with acquiring the best players. That’s just how it is,” he said. “On any given night, a team can pop anybody. If you’re not ready to play, the guy you’re guarding is more than likely going to score 15 or 20. You’ve got to show up every night or else it’s probably not going to be good for you.”

“Every night, no matter what, the team believes they’re going to win, whether you’re 10th in the league or first in the league,” said Iowa State’s George Conditt IV. “Every team wants to defend their gym, every team wants to go into another building and beat them. There’s always that pressure. There are great programs in this conference. History behind them. Everybody wants to uphold the history.”

Back in Provo, Pope is building his roster for next season. He said that athletic director Tom Holmoe and deputy athletic director Brian Santiago support his big-picture approach to competing in the Big 12. 

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Pope pointed out that Holmoe has served on the NCAA tournament selection committee. 

“From that birds-eye view, (Holmoe) has insight into what Big 12 basketball is. It’s half a step away from the fifth division in the NBA. It’s really daunting,” Pope said. “We’re super humble about being in this league. We know we need to take extraordinary measures to be competitive at this level night in and night out.

“BYU is probably a place where you’re less prepared to consistently have quick fixes. I think we can have some part in a quick fix solution. But this is something that we feel like we have to grow from the ground up in order to get to a space where we can be on this most elite level.

“We’re all super excited about it and the process and growing and excited about seeing what we can become,” he continued. “The great thing about Tom and Brian is, they’re not afraid of hard work. They’re not scared to build something from the ground up. They’re incredible guys in this athletic department.”

That support should be helpful as the Cougars try to climb Mount Everest in a basketball sense.