LAWRENCE, Kansas — College basketball players and coaches are programmed to only talk about their next game, and not future opponents, but BYU coach Mark Pope could not help himself last week.

The Cougars were two days away from facing Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan — a game they lost, 84-74 — when Pope was asked about Tuesday’s game (6 p.m. MST, ESPN+) at No. 7 Kansas, which by far is the biggest basketball brand in BYU’s new league, the Big 12.

“I hope that we are in a space where … the only thing that is going to affect winning and losing is if we are really focused on the moment.” — BYU basketball coach Mark Pope

“This Kansas team is (quintessential) Kansas. Kansas is Phog Allen (Fieldhouse) and all that,” Pope said. “We have been saying the same thing for the last 40 years, right? They are unbelievable and they are big and physical and powerful and skilled. Great environment.”

And a huge challenge, as well, especially for a BYU team (7-7, 19-8) that fell out of the AP Top 25 college basketball poll for the first time since November, ending a 13-week run as a ranked team, and is suddenly having trouble winning on the road in the Big 12. The Cougars are 2-5 in league games away from the Marriott Center, while the Jayhawks (9-5, 21-6) are 14-0 in their 16,300-seat home that opened in 1955 and has been renovated four times since then.

At first glance, winning at The Phog appears to be an impossible task for BYU. If the Cougars could pull off the upset, it would arguably go down as the biggest win in the Mark Pope era, slightly ahead of that conquest of No. 2 Gonzaga in 2020.

Why? Because it is a bigger stage, on the road, at one of the most hallowed venues in all of sports, let alone college sports.

Pope has said just playing there is an “epic” step for BYU, which is 0-2 at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas drubbed the Cougars 96-64 in 1959 and 83-67 in 1971. Kansas is 4-1 all-time against BYU, with the Cougars’ only win coming in 1960 (80-70) at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo. 

Kansas won the last matchup, 71-56, at the 2019 Maui Invitational.

Pope said the Cougars were originally going to stay in the Kansas City area between the games in the Sunflower State, but when the K-State tipoff was set for 1 p.m. local time, they decided to return to Provo Saturday night. They were scheduled to fly out to Lawrence Monday afternoon and head to Allen Fieldhouse “to kinda smell the gym” Monday night before getting in a shootaround Tuesday morning.

Perhaps that will improve their 3-point shooting. Without the benefit of a shootaround Saturday at Kansas State, BYU went 6 of 31 from beyond the arc, a season-low in both 3-point percentage and total 3-pointers.

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“You can play well, you can have an eight-turnover game, 19 offensive-rebound game, which are incredible stats in this league, and lose,” Pope said, refusing to use the lack of pregame gym time as an excuse. “There are a lot of leagues where if you put up numbers like that you are not going to lose. But in this league, with these teams, and especially on the road, it gets hard.”

Because of their 3-point shooting ability, and deeper bench, BYU has a puncher’s chance of pulling off the upset. Also, Kansas will be without its best, or second-best, player, depending upon one’s perspective. 

Three-time all-Big 12 selection Kevin McCullar, a 6-foot-7 guard, is averaging 19.5 points per game but will remain out with a bone bruise, coach Bill Self said after the Jayhawks pummeled Texas on Saturday, leaving an already-thin KU bench even thinner. 

Kansas is No. 345 (of 351) teams in bench scoring, getting just 11.41 points per game from its reserves.

Conversely, bench play is one of BYU’s greatest strengths. The Cougars are No. 6 in the country in bench scoring, as reserves have totaled 869 points — more than 32 points per game.

Senior Jaxson Robinson, junior Fouss Traore and sophomore Richie Saunders could start at a lot of places, but Pope brings them off the bench regularly, a strategy that has mostly worked well but has been questioned the past two games as the Cougars fell behind 18-10 against Baylor and 16-4 against K-State.

Cougars on the air

BYU (7-7, 19-8)
at No. 7 Kansas (9-5, 21-6)
Tuesday, 6 p.m. MST
Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

“I hope that we are in a space where … the only thing that is going to affect winning and losing is if we are really focused on the moment,” Pope said.

Another key will be slowing down KU big man Hunter Dickinson, who is averaging 18.3 points and 10.9 rebounds a game and is one of the leading candidates for Big 12 player of the year. It will be interesting to see how the Cougars defend the 7-2 Dickinson with the likes of the 6-11 Aly Khalifa, the 6-6 Traore, and the 6-10 Atiki Ally Atiki, who was a bright spot off the bench in BYU’s 84-74 loss to Kansas State.

As Monday dawned, BYU was No. 13 in the NET rankings, while Kansas was No. 14.

In, BYU was 18th and Kansas was 15th.

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson celebrates a teammates basket during a game against Texas game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Lawrence, Kan. Dickinson could be a handful for BYU’s big men Tuesday night. | Charlie Riedel, Associated Press