For BYU, playing basketball in the Big 12 will be like running through a wood chipper.

But head coach Mark Pope will take it. He’ll take it every day of the week.

Pope said he’s excited and anxious to be a part of what he called the greatest college basketball league in the country — maybe the best that has ever been assembled.

“I don’t know if there’s ever been anything like it — maybe the first couple years of the ACC when it expanded. But the ACC never had the football presence that the Big 12 has and what’s happening here in basketball is incredible,” he said.

Pope explained his views after the first media availability of the season as BYU’s basketball team prepares for a trip to Italy and Croatia to “bond” and prepare for the season by playing teams in those countries.

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The Big 12, home to NCAA powers Kansas, Texas Tech, Baylor and Houston, will have Oklahoma and Texas as a part of the league competition for one final time this coming season.

Pope called the addition of Arizona (along with Utah, Arizona State and Colorado) as part of a Pac-12 implosion, an important milestone for the growing league.

“You know, it makes this conference so stable,” said Pope. “And stability is what I think you’re really searching for in conference realignments.”

The fact BYU, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State will join together in a geographically linked portion of the Big 12 in 2024 is a very big deal, according to Pope. “This little region part of the conference is exactly what we needed.”

Pope praised the renewal of an in-conference rivalry with Utah as part of the Big 12 in 2024.  The two schools have not been in the same league for 13 years, when the Cougars joined the West Coat Conference and the Utes moved to the Pac-12. Both had competed together in the Mountain West, the WAC, Skyline or Mountain States conferences.

The Utah-BYU rivalry may be a sticking point for some fans on both sides, but Pope said in his opinion, it was fantastic. 

“It was existing before all of us were here and it’s gonna exist long after we’re all gone. And those are part of the things that make sports special,” he said. 

Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) drives into the lane between BYU’s guards Rudi Williams (3) and Richie Saunders (15) as BYU and Utah play at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022. The two rivals will again be in the same conference once Utah joins the Big 12 in 2024, one year after BYU. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The last time BYU won or shared a conference title was with National Player of the Year Jimmer Fredette in 2010-11, a team that went 32-5 as a member of the MWC. Before that, a Dave Rose-coached team won or shared three consecutive MWC titles from 2006-07 through 2008-09.

Winning a Big 12 title will be a monumental feat by either BYU or Utah.

The last times Utah won or shared a league title was in the MWC in 2009 and 2004. Utah has more NCAA tournament wins than BYU, which is a program often mentioned as having the most NCAA appearances without reaching the Final Four.

By adding Arizona, the Big 12 competition just leaped up a few notches.

“I’m really excited to have Arizona in the conference. They’ve been an incredible program for a long time. They’ve been the standard bearer in the Pac-12 for a long time. Having them in the Big 12 is super exciting. Having all of these teams (where they are) really fit for the most part. It is the best basketball conference in the country by miles.”

Pope said he was informed before this recent expansion of the potential to add Arizona, Utah and ASU if Colorado joined the Big 12. “And I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn now to say there were other contingency plans being discussed that I was ‘super selfishly’ excited about,” he said.

Pope may have been referring to the Big 12 courting Gonzaga and defending champion UConn as basketball members only.

“It’s going to be awesome, guys, it will be awesome for all you guys and certainly it will be awesome for us to be in, compete in and cover the Big 12. I don’t think there has been anything like it,” the coach said.

Pope praised Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, who has been on fire since replacing Bob Bowlsby just more than a year ago. “He’s pushing the envelope in every single way and what’s happening to basketball in this conference is incredible.

“I can’t think of a better group of people to be leading a conference and make it grow.  From what he did in Rucker Park in New York City to bring attention to a big media market to the exposure plans in Mexico City, it has all been big.”

Pope said BYU is in the right place at the right time.

“This is an opportunity we’ve never had before. It’s here now, let’s go guys.”

It will be interesting and dramatic to see how the Cougars and Utes manage the intense competition in Big 12 basketball.  

No question it will be a challenge.

But it will also force both schools to work harder, do things different, and force growth in recruiting, scouting, skill development, salaries and on-court acumen.

Wood chipper indeed.

BYU men’s basketball players huddle during practice on the university’s campus on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023. | Nate Edwards/BYU Photo