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‘Every combination is so deadly’: BYU basketball team basking in depth

Right now, coach Mark Pope is trying to determine which combinations play best together and which rotations to use in various situations.

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BYU forward Gavin Baxter drives against Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Killian Tillie at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

When BYU’s Mark Pope leads practices, he’s struck by the wealth of depth he’s never had as a coach. If nothing else, he has plenty of options at his disposal. 

Up and down the roster, at a variety of positions, he sees players that can make big contributions this season — guards Alex Barcello, Brandon Averette, Connor Harding, Trevin Knell, Spencer Johnson, Jesse Wade and Hunter Erickson; and front-court talent, including Matt Haarms, Richard Harward, Gavin Baxter, Kolby Lee, Caleb Lohner, Gideon George and Wyatt Lowell. 

“I’ve never had a bench this deep and a roster this diversified. I’ve been blessed to coach great teams, last year being one of them,” he said. “This team brings some different possibilities to the table. I’ve never had a team this long and this deep. I’ve never had a junior and senior class this heavy. We’re excited. It’s going to be fun. There’s a lot of things we have to figure out.”

Right now, among other things, Pope is trying to determine which combinations play best together and which rotations to use in various situations. The Cougars will be able to throw a lot of versatile looks at opposing teams. 

“When you start to talk about schematics and game plans and rotations and even pace of play, with this roster, it’s going to be incredibly different than last year because we have such a different roster,” he said. “We’re learning that all together right now. We’re trying some new things that we never tried before. We don’t know how that’s going to turn out, which is pretty exciting.”

So how is it for the players, who are competing every day for playing time? 

“It’s awesome because every single day we push our team. There will be days where it’s me and Gavin or me and Rich or me and Matt. Every combination is so deadly,” Lee said. “I’m the guy that has great touch. Rich is so physical. Matt is 7-3. You can’t teach that. He’s just huge. Then you have Gavin, who’s a freak of an athlete. We have every kind of area that you could want.”

BYU’s size will certainly come in handy when it faces big teams like West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga. 

“I’m excited to play Gonzaga this year because normally they have three or four bigs that are really good. This year, I think ours are better. When we sub, there’s no letdown,” Lee said. “It might be better than the first group, depending on the night. It’s awesome to compete in practice because there are so many different looks that we can do.

“We’re going zone on defense. We’re so long. Matt’s wingspan is insane. We have Gavin’s athleticism and leadership from me and Rich. It’s going to be a really fun year,” he continued. “We’re not too worried about minutes because we’re all veterans so we’re all going to play. We’re all good enough that  we’re going to rotate and stay fresh, which is nice. Especially when we play good teams like Gonzaga. It’s going to be fun.”

Pope and his staff expect to experiment with a lot of different lineup combinations. 

“We’re going to be exploring that for probably the next six months. We are trying to do things every day and as guys get more comfortable trying to approach this the way we want to,” Pope said. “I would give anything to have these exhibitions and private scrimmages this year. We have a lot of tinkering to do but we’ll make the best of it.”

How is Pope planning to distribute playing time on a team this deep?

“If I was a great coach, I’d play 17. We have 17 guys who could probably play. I’d like to keep this rotation as big as we possibly can,” he said. “I’d like to stress our guys enough on the court that 20-24 minutes is as much as they can handle. That would be the ideal situation.

“That’s what a great coach would do. We might be stuck with an eight- or nine-player rotation. We’re shooting for a bigger rotation and I’d like to get there. There are a lot of advantages about being able to go deep into your bench. Hopefully we’ll be good enough as players and a staff that we can get that done.”