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BYU basketball season preview: Why the new-look Cougars have such high expectations

For BYU, the goal is to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. Mark Pope has restored glory, and national relevance, to the program.

BYU coach Mark Pope yells during game against Gonzaga at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.
BYU coach Mark Pope yells during game against Gonzaga at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. The Cougars are set to tip off their 2020-21 season Wednesday at home against Westminster.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Heading into coach Mark Pope’s second season at the helm, BYU has a new-look, revamped roster after losing a ton of talent and experience.

Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a rebuilding season for the Cougars.

But because of proven returning players, an influx of newcomers expected to make an immediate impact, increased size and length, and an unusually deep roster, BYU is hoping to continue on the upward trajectory it set last season.

In 2019-20, the Cougars posted a 24-8 record, placed second in the West Coast Conference and finished No. 18 in the final Associated Press poll. They were projected to be a single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament before it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For BYU, the goal is to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2015.

Pope has restored glory, and national relevance, to the program. And he’s proven to be one of the top recruiters in college basketball. As The Athletic recently wrote, “BYU has quickly turned into one of the most interesting programs in the country.”

Senior guard Alex Barcello is keeping the expectations high for this season.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (4) drives around Loyola Marymount Lions forward Ivan Alipiev (35) during the game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020.
BYU guard Alex Barcello drives around Loyola Marymount Lions forward Ivan Alipie Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“I think we have a lot of potential. We have a stacked roster. A lot of different pieces that when it comes together, it’s going to be pretty scary in my own thoughts. I think there’s a high ceiling for this team,” he said. “I don’t think we should limit our goals in anything. I think all of us have the same mindset.

“We’ve talked a lot about it as a group and with the coaches. We’re set out to win every game that we can, then go win a WCC championship and a national championship. I think the sky’s the limit for this group. We’re coming in attacking every day and we’re just going to keep going.”

In addition to Barcello, the team leader, the Cougars have several key returning players — forwards Gavin Baxter and Kolby Lee and guards Connor Harding, Trevin Knell and Jesse Wade.

They could be the glue that keeps this team together, serving as a bridge between Pope’s first and second seasons.

Here’s a look inside the upcoming season for BYU.

Key newcomers

BYU welcomes a pair of grad transfers — 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, formerly of Purdue, and guard Brandon Averette, formerly of Utah Valley University.

BYU newcomer Matt Haarms talks with head coach Mark Pope during a practice in Provo, Utah.
Courtesy BYU Photo

Haarms placed his name in the transfer portal last spring and was immediately recruited by programs all over the country. In the end, Haarms picked the Cougars over Pope’s alma mater, Kentucky and Texas Tech.

Averette, a lightning quick point guard, played at Oklahoma State before transferring to UVU.

Also joining the Cougars are freshman forward Caleb Lohner, freshman guard Hunter Erickson, New Mexico Junior College transfer Gideon George and Salt Lake Community College transfer Spencer Johnson. Lohner originally signed with Utah before opting to become a Cougar.

Meanwhile, a pair of players that redshirted after transferring from UVU, Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell, are expected to make big contributions. Harward is a physical presence in the post, while Lowell suffered a major shoulder injury last summer but is close to returning to the court.

One of Pope’s challenges will be how to maximize this versatile, diverse roster and blend it into a cohesive unit. Pope talks about having “the best locker room in America.” Have the newcomers bought into this philosophy of unity, relentlessness and unselfishness?

Key departures

BYU lost seven seniors from last year’s squad, including Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson. Childs and Haws went down as two of the all-time greats in the annals of Cougar basketball, while Toolson, a grad transfer, made his mark last season.

Childs, Haws, Toolson, Dalton Nixon and Zac Seljaas accounted for 70% of the Cougars’ overall scoring production that must be replaced.

BYU finished No. 1 in the country in 3-point shooting and among the best in the nation in offensive efficiency.

Not only that, those seniors left a huge leadership void.

BYU’s 2020 seniors staged one of the most memorable senior nights in school history when they helped lead the Cougars to an epic upset of No. 2 Gonzaga in front of a sellout crowd at the Marriott Center.

Though the senior classmen weren’t able to finish their careers with a much-anticipated NCAA Tournament appearance, it was key to helping Pope to a stellar campaign in his first season and setting a tone for the future.

Potential X-factor

It’s been 30 years, when BYU boasted 7-6 freshman Shawn Bradley, that the Cougars had a player close to Haarms’ size and the ability to protect the rim at a high level. On top of that, Haarms has range to his shot — don’t be surprised to see him fire an occasional 3-pointer.

Pope loves what Haarms brings to the program.

“He’s a really talented player,” he said. “There’s not a lot on the floor he can’t do. The way he’s guarding ball screens, his feet are so good for a guy that’s 7-3. The way he runs the floor is really exciting. Especially the last few weeks, he’s taken it upon himself to up his reps shooting the ball. He’s shooting the ball at a really high clip for us as a 7-3 guy. You can’t challenge his shot. So he’s literally always open.

“Even if you’re standing right there in his face, he’s still essentially open. He’s shooting it really well. And he’s such a force in the post. He’s playing with toughness. If he can’t make you look like a good coach, you’re a really bad coach. We’re so happy to have him.”

Schedule challenges

When the nonconference schedule was released recently, Pope called it “terrifying.”

Not only is it challenging with a handful of games against opponents rated in the top 50 according to kenpom.com, but due to the pandemic, the compressed nature of the schedule could be tough to navigate.

The Cougars are scheduled to play their first six games in the course of nine days. Cancellations seem almost inevitable due to the spread of the virus.

Among the highlights of the nonconference schedule are the Roman Legends Classic at Uncasville, Connecticut, when BYU will face USC in the opening game and have a meeting against either UConn or Vanderbilt in the second.

The Cougars also have contests against Utah State, Boise State, Utah and San Diego State.

In WCC play, BYU has two games scheduled against perennial power Gonzaga, which is ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP poll. It’s the first time in program history that the Zags are the top-ranked team to open a season.

That gives the Cougars a shot to upset Gonzaga and enhance their NCAA tournament resume.

Prediction

If the Cougars can stay healthy, and if Pope can figure out a way to get the most out of his players and help them understand and carry out their roles, they have a great shot at competing with Gonzaga in the WCC and receiving an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament next March.