BYU basketball coach Mark Pope’s second season at the helm begins in earnest Wednesday when the Cougars officially begin practice with two sessions.
The evening practice will be broadcast live on the BYUtv App and BYUtv.org at 6 p.m. MDT. The 2020-21 college basketball campaign is set to tip off Nov. 25.
In Pope’s first season, BYU finished with a No. 18 national ranking, a second-place finish in the West Coast Conference and a 24-8 record. The Cougars were projected to receive a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament last March before it was canceled due to the global pandemic.
BYU lost seven seniors from last year’s team, including its top three scorers, Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson. But Pope and his staff replenished the roster with several intriguing newcomers, including 7-foot-3 Purdue transfer Matt Haarms, who was considered one of the biggest prizes of the available fifth-year seniors in college basketball during the offseason.
Unlike many programs around the country, the Cougars have been on campus since June, holding voluntary workouts, weight training and limited practice sessions.
Here are five key storylines to watch for as practices open:
Can BYU approximate its stellar offensive efficiency and 3-point shooting from last season?
BYU led the nation in 3-point shooting (42.2%), was No. 2 in assist/turnover ratio, No. 3 in field goal percentage, No. 4 in 3-point field goals per game and No. 5 in assists per game.
BYU was the only team in the nation to shoot higher than 40% from 3-point range and seven Cougars improved their 3-point shooting from the previous season. BYU rocketed from No. 46 the previous season to No. 7 a year ago in offensive efficiency.
While the results were better than expected, this didn’t happen by accident. The Cougar coaching staff has credited the players for that success. The coaches emphasized to their players the importance of “owning your shot” and sharing the ball.
That philosophy will continue, just with a bunch of different players. What will be the results?
One player that will be counted on is senior guard Alex Barcello, who averaged 9.3 points and shot 48.6% from beyond the arc a year ago.
How will Matt Haarms change the way BYU plays?
Last season, particularly when Childs missed the first nine games due to an NCAA suspension, the Cougars were forced to play a brand of small ball, which translated into more wins than expected.
This season, one of BYU’s strengths is expected to be its size and length.
Haarms finished No. 4 all-time in Purdue history with 210 blocks. As a junior last season, Haarms averaged 8.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.
In addition to adding Haarms, one of the best rim-protectors in college basketball, the Cougars boast 6-11 Richard Harward and 6-10 Wyatt Lowell, who both redshirted last season after transferring from Utah Valley University, and they add freshman Caleb Lohner (6-8), who originally signed with Utah. Lowell underwent shoulder surgery in July and is not expected to be available for a while.
This considerable size and length on the roster should help BYU improve considerably in terms of rebounding and interior defense, which were weaknesses at times last season. It’s been a while since the Cougars have enjoyed this kind of depth in the post.
How will other newcomers impact the Cougars?
Other players that Pope and his staff attracted to Provo include point guard Brandon Averette, who’s a proven playmaker, ballhandler and shot-creator.
His style should complement Barcello’s. Averette started his career at Oklahoma State before averaging 12.8 points, 2.1 rebounds and 3 assists with 27 steals a year ago at UVU.
“The reason he is going to be the best dude that we could have gotten in the (transfer) portal is that he’s already played for Pope at UVU, and he already knows what he expects,” Toolson said. “He knows the system. Then there’s that relationship and the confidence — that’s going to be huge for him.”
The Cougars also welcome two other transfers, forward Gideon George, a raw talent from Nigeria (and New Mexico JC) that is considered a natural rebounder.
“He is an extraordinarily gifted athlete, a great teammate and we have high expectations for his growth and what he’ll contribute here at BYU,” Pope said last spring. “He’s going to be a fan favorite.”
Guard Spencer Johnson is a transfer from Salt Lake Community College. He averaged 13.4 points and shot 51% from the field, including 38% from 3-point range. Johnson helped lead the Bruins to a 29-4 record last season.
Guard Hunter Erickson, a Timpview High product, is also on the roster after returning home from a church mission.
Can Pope put together ‘the best locker room in America’?
One of the challenges for Pope and his staff will be blending this diverse roster. It’s filled with players from different backgrounds and experiences. Can this Cougar team embrace Pope’s mantra of becoming “the best locker room in America?”
“It’s interesting because so many people were inspired by how these players performed last year. You’re immediately drawn to it. Then there are some guys that are looking for something different,” Pope said over the summer. “Some grad transfers want to be a 30 (point) and 10 (rebound) guy every game, regardless of what a defense is dictating. That’s not a great fit for how we are.
“That’s one example of a hundred different ways where you might dig deeper in the process and feel like this might not be the right fit for me. Or the right fit for us. What captured everyone’s attention last season was how we had these great players that were more interested in fighting for each other than for themselves,” he continued. “As we began to have those conversations about how exactly that happened, with some guys, it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for or what we were looking for. That’s a huge, important step.”
What kind of schedule can BYU put together that will enhance its NCAA Tournament resume?
Due to the pandemic, the Cougars’ schedule has been affected tremendously, which, of course, is something every program in the nation is dealing with. The NCAA pushed back the start date a few weeks to Nov. 25.
BYU had three Pac-12 opponents (Oregon, Arizona State and Utah) on its original schedule as well as a multiteam event in the Bahamas. The Junkanoo Jam has been canceled but the Cougars are expected to play in another multiteam event, in Connecticut Dec. 3-4, along with UConn, USC and Vanderbilt.
The coaching staff is still in the process of rebuilding the toughest schedule it can in order to bolster its NCAA Tournament resume. The Cougars are expected to play 27 games, including 16 WCC contests. Those 11 nonconference games BYU is able to line up, and its performance against those opponents, will have a big impact on the way the NCAA Selection Committee evaluates the Cougars next March.
BYU would have been part of March Madness last season if not for the coronavirus. The Cougars haven’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 2015. Pope and his players are hopeful that this is the season that streak ends.