For the past few weeks during his weekly online interview sessions with the media, BYU coach Mark Pope has fielded many questions about his team’s nonconference schedule, which has had to be rebuilt due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he couldn’t provide many specific answers.
When he greeted reporters Thursday, he did so with his trademark enthusiasm. And this time, he had a schedule to announce.
So, with the help of assistant coach Nick Robinson, who is in charge of scheduling and has worked painstakingly to re-create it, they listed off each game, one at a time.
It’s a whirlwind schedule, with 11 nonconference games over the course of less than a month, including six games in the first nine days. It offers the possibility of playing four opponents ranked in kenpom.com’s preseason top 50.
The Cougars tip off the season Nov. 25 at home against Westminster, followed 24 hours later by a Thanksgiving matchup against New Orleans at the Marriott Center. Two days after that, BYU hosts Pope’s former employer, Utah Valley University.
From Dec. 1-3, the Cougars will play in the Roman Legends Classic at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. BYU faces USC in the first game and then will meet the winner of UConn-Vanderbilt.
The Cougars will then travel to Utah State (Dec. 5). Then they entertain Boise State (Dec. 9) and Utah (Dec. 12). BYU travels to San Diego State (Dec. 18) before hosting Texas Southern (Dec. 21) and meeting Weber State at Vivint Arena (Dec. 23).
“This really is a terrifying schedule. If you think about it, we start the season with three games in four days; then we go away from home, three games in five days with traveling across the country,” Pope said. “Then Boise State, who might be the best team we play, I’m going to be surprised if they’re not a top 25 team by the end of the season. They’re so freakin’ loaded with talent. Then Utah, which is also a monster of a game.”
BYU’s 16-game West Coast Conference schedule is set to tip off on Dec. 31 at Pepperdine.
The Cougars are currently ranked No. 89 in the kenpom.com preseason rankings. Here are the kenpom.com rankings of their 11 nonconference opponents/possible opponents in order of rating: UConn (No. 43), San Diego State (No. 44), USC (No. 48), Utah (No. 52), Utah State (No. 69), Boise State (No. 105), Vanderbilt (No. 126), Texas Southern (No. 258), Weber State (No. 274), New Orleans (No. 313) and UVU (No. 314).
Pope and his staff tried to put together a schedule to give their team an opportunity to build a strong NCAA Tournament at-large resume. It wasn’t easy. They also had to factor in the possibility that games could be canceled due to the pandemic.
“Everybody is guessing in a bigger way than we’ve ever had to guess before. Not only are we guessing about what the NCAA Tournament committee is going to value, which we’re always guessing, but we’re really guessing now,” Pope said of the scheduling process for team across the country. “We’re also guessing about what games we’re going to miss and how many games we’re going to miss. Putting this schedule together, we have to have so many high-quality opponents. It really is terrifying.
“I look at the schedule and I’m not going to sleep for the next couple of weeks. There’s just no break. We just wanted to make sure that our guys had a chance to prove who they were,” he continued. “I think our schedule is so tough that if we do lose a couple of games to COVID, we still have an ample opportunity to prove ourselves. That’s what we’re banking on. We knew we wanted a really tough schedule. Clearly, we’ve got it. Then we’re going to go try to survive it.”
Before practice Thursday, Pope informed his team about this nonconference schedule.
“He said it’s going to be a top 10 schedule in the country. That’s what we all wanted,” said senior guard Alex Barcello. “That’s why we’ve been working so hard and we’re so excited and motivated to go out there and give it everything we have and win as many games as we can.”
With less than two weeks before the season tips off, Pope is emphasizing that this schedule will be a major challenge for his team.
“That’s the type of schedule that gets you fired. So pray for me. Pray for us. It doesn’t get any better than this. Let’s go hoop,” he said. “It could be the death of us, but there’s nothing better than playing great teams in the nonconference. We’re really excited.”
Here’s a look at the full nonconference schedule:
Nov. 25 — Westminster
Nov. 26 — New Orleans
Nov. 28 — Utah Valley
Dec. 1 — vs. USC (Legends Classic)
Dec. 3 — vs. UConn/Vanderbilt (Legends Classic)
Dec. 5 — at Utah State
Dec. 9 — Boise State
Dec. 12 — Utah
Dec. 18 — at San Diego State
Dec. 21 — Texas Southern
Dec. 23 — vs. Weber State (Vivint Smart Home Arena)