Richie Saunders predicts a very different sophomore season for himself and BYU’s basketball team heading into the challenging role as a member of the Big 12.

The 6-foot-5 guard was a big spark for coach Mark Pope last year.

But he was part of a very, very young team.

That team has grown up by leaps and bounds, claims Saunders.

A year ago, Saunders and point guards Dallin Hall were fresh off two years of missionary service. They joined by sophomore Fousseyni Traore. They were all thrown in the deep end of the Division I basketball pool and told to swim. 

They all had their moments. Hall started 21 games, Traore became BYU’s best post player, and Saunders took an energizer-type role who was asked to come in and make a difference with whatever minutes were thrown his way.

Hall had just returned from mission work around Fresno. Saunders spent the same two years in the Seattle area. Neither player was working out hours a day nor working on his jump shot during that time.

This year, Saunders said, it all has an entirely different feeling.

And for Saunders, it’s going to be a completely different life beginning next month.

Saunders will marry former BYU women’s basketball player Sienna Johnson Sept. 1, when he returns from the current team trip to Italy and Croatia. This will take place before the season begins.

As I was visiting with Saunders after a practice session in Provo last week, Pope walked over and ensured that Saunders was on his way to marital bliss. 

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Pope called Sienna a “rock star.”

So, indeed, he’s stepping right up — in life and game for Year 2 in Provo.

Saunders said BYU fans should expect a far more experienced and wiser trio in himself, Hall and Traore.

“A year ago, it was all new, we’d never played together at all. Now we have been able to learn so much about how to play together. This team is far ahead of where we were last year at this point in preparation.”

Saunders said he still wants to be known for his bursts of energy, but not in a negative way — that all that effort will be directed in production and positivity.

“I’ve worked hard. I’m a different player, I’m capable of so much more this year. I’ve worked on different parts of my game, like adding a floater and shooting better from the mid-range. I’m not where I need to be defensively, but I’m working and continuing to grow in that area.”

BYU’s basketball team is in the midst of its European trip, scheduled specifically to bring the squad together and build chemistry. The first stop was Milan, where the Cougars defeated Orange 1 Basket Bassano 100-64 by making 16 3-point buckets. Trevin Knell led all scorers with 20.

After a boat tour on nearby Lake Como the squad visited Venice on Monday before heading to its second game against Palacanstro Trieste, an 84-73 win. The Cougars were led by Jaxson Robinson’s 26 points. Knell added 15.

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The team just finished losing to four-time Croatian League champion KK Zadar, 80-57, and were scheduled to take part in the Kresimir Cosic Basketball Camp in Zadar. There, the Cougars would learn about former BYU All-American and Hall of famer Cosic. The arena in which they played KK Zadar is named in honor of Cosic. The team was also scheduled to meet with Cosic’s extended family. Cosic, a hero and legend in Croatia, passed away from cancer in the mid-1990s.

“I’m anxious to learn more about him,” said Saunders last week in Provo. “We are all looking forward to it.”

Saunders promises BYU fans he will still bring the energy he showed a year ago on the court, but it will be more purposeful and directed. 

 “I’ve learned so much more about the game from a year ago. I was young. Our team was young.”

BYU guard Richie Saunders goes under the basket for a layup during game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News