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Why BYU basketball is so grateful for the upcoming season, even if that means playing without fans

Coach Mark Pope’s goal is to “try to give our guys the best game day experience that we possibly can.”

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope thanks the student section following BYU’s 100-58 win over UT-Tyler in an exhibition basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
FILE: Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope thanks the student section following BYU’s 100-58 win over UT-Tyler in an exhibition basketball game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. The Cougars, like every other team in the country, are facing the reality of possibly playing without fans in attendance this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

BYU coach Mark Pope certainly understands the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic and what he calls “the awful impact” that it has made on the world.

Pope acknowledges there is a strong likelihood that the virus will disrupt the upcoming college basketball season in some fashion. The Cougars are scheduled to host Westminster in their season opener Nov. 25 and they’re set to play 11 nonconference games between then and Dec. 23.

Despite the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus, Pope and his players are thankful to start the new campaign, knowing it will look much different than usual.

“Make no mistake about it. We are so incredibly, deeply grateful for the opportunity to play basketball,” he said. “We’re not complaining about anything, no matter what we see. We’re just grateful that we get to play.”

And after what happened at the end of last season, when BYU was projected as a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament before the Big Dance was canceled due to COVID-19, the Cougars are cherishing every moment they get to spend playing basketball.

“Our experience in the spring, there’s none of us that are not scarred from being 48 hours away from Selection Sunday and these guys having fought for years to achieve the chance to go play and then it gets ripped away,” Pope said. “It’s very sobering. We understand that every day that we get to be on this court is a gift. These guys are approaching it that way. We scheduled that way.”

BYU released its nonconference schedule a few days ago, and Pope realizes that some games may not be played due to the virus. And he’s also preparing his team for the strong possibility that fans won’t be able to attend games this season.

Pope told reporters last Thursday that he was planning to hold “a full game-day experience” for his players on Saturday.

“We’re going to come in and do shoot-around at 2 (p.m.) and come back at 7 (p.m.). We’re really working hard with everybody here at BYU to make the Marriott Center the most entertaining and exciting empty gym in the country,” Pope said. “That’s our goal. We had a meeting with 25 people, socially distanced, on the Marriott Center floor, (last) Monday morning. We’re trying. That’s the challenge in front of us. We’re going to try to give our guys the best game-day experience that we possibly can just in preparation for those gyms we have to play in that are empty.”

BYU players are looking forward to playing games as they embrace the new normal.

In the Cougars’ final home game of last season, on Feb. 22, they knocked off No. 2 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center in an epic victory that featured the sellout crowd’s deafening roars and ended with fans storming the court.

So how are the Cougars adjusting to the prospect of playing in front of empty seats — particularly at the Marriott Center, where they own such an overwhelming home court advantage?

“Last year was special, like the Gonzaga game, where the gym was absolutely packed,” said forward Richard Harward. “There are times when I feel a little bit sad about it. We won’t quite have that same environment. But at the same time, we’re like, ‘Hey, we get to go and compete.’ We do a great job, coach does a great job, at getting the players to bring the energy on the court.”

When it comes to playing without fans, Harward, who prepped at Orem High and played at Utah Valley University before transferring to BYU, said, “I’m kind of used to it. At Orem High, we had a good fan base but we didn’t have super crazy fans. At UVU, as kind of a developing school, we were starting to see a lot more fans come over before I left. So I’m kind of used to a little bit less fans.”

Matt Haarms, BYU’s 7-foot-3 grad transfer from Purdue, said he and his teammates have been preparing in practices for a different atmosphere during games.

“Normally, you always play that secret scrimmage game (before the season tips off). Those are always in empty gyms. This is really good preparation. These practices, guys will need to bring their own energy,” he said. “It’s really important to prepare for a gym where you’re going to hear the ball bounce. There’s not going to be 10,000 fans with crazy crowd noise. … It’s going to be a very different environment so it’s good for us to get that energy now so when we get to the games we’re used to it and we’ll bring that energy every single second, whether we’re on the bench or on the court.”

Even if fans can’t watch games in person, the Cougars know that just returning to the court, playing an opponent, is a significant victory in itself.