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After ‘a brutal stretch’ BYU gets a little break before visiting No. 18 San Diego State

The Cougars played six games in the first 11 days of the season, including a Thanksgiving night home contest, a trip across the country to Connecticut for a couple of games and a showdown against in-state rival Utah State in Logan. 

BYU Cougars coach Mark Pope directs his team in the game against Santa Clara at Brigham Young University in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.
BYU Cougars coach Mark Pope directs his team in the game against Santa Clara at Brigham Young University in Provo on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

This is the longest break, at least from games, that the BYU basketball team has experienced so far this season.

With the 2020-21 campaign being delayed and not tipping off until Nov. 25 due to the pandemic, coach Mark Pope and his staff filled the schedule with games compressed in a short amount of time.

The Cougars played six games in the first 11 days of the season, including a Thanksgiving night home contest, a trip across the country to Connecticut for a couple of games and a showdown against in-state rival Utah State in Logan.

BYU (6-2) fell 74-70 to Boise State last Wednesday and beat arch-rival Utah 82-64 at home last Saturday.

The Cougars visit No. 18 San Diego State Friday (3 p.m. MST, CBS SN).

“These guys have answered the bell so far. It’s been such a brutal, brutal stretch. It’s not fair to ask a team to do this,” Pope said. “We played eight games in 18 days, traveled across the country and played a road game against one of our biggest rivals (Utah State). You could just feel the fatigue of my guys growing. They found a way to battle knowing this was the last game. We have a couple of days to breathe here … I’m excited about the resilience and toughness they’ve shown. I’m so proud of them for how they managed this gauntlet of a schedule so far.”

Starting Monday, Pope’s players have been engrossed in final exams.

“Now they start 18-hour days studying for finals Monday and Tuesday,” Pope said. “But it’s a different type of work. I couldn’t be happier with what they’ve accomplished.”

The past few weeks, Pope has been trying to learn more about his team, such as figuring out which rotations play best together.

“We have this massive amount of data but we haven’t had a lot of practice time to implement changes,” he said. “We’re learning about our team and how to function. The most important thing we learned is how tough these kids are.”

Alex Barcello has been carrying BYU in scoring this season — until the game against Utah. Barcello, who averages a team-high 17.8 points per contest, scored a season-low five points. But he did have a season-high eight assists.

Other Cougars stepped up to fill the scoring void against the Utes as Connor Harding poured in a career-high 17 points, Spencer Johnson had 16 and Richard Harward added 15.

Caleb Lohner, who was named West Coast Conference Freshman of the Week last Monday, recorded eight points and had a career-high 10 rebounds against Utah, while Kolby Lee finished with seven points.

Balanced scoring is important moving forward for BYU. Opposing teams are clearly keying on Barcello, so it’s important the Cougars rely on other scorers.

“It’s about finding different ways to score. It helped me out a lot to get some easy ones around the hoop,” Harding said. “I found my rhythm a little bit and hopefully I can maintain that and keep aggressive and give my teammates the ball.”

Pope is enjoying the depth at his disposal, particularly in the post with Lee, Harward and Matt Haarms.

“The depth is huge,” he said. “I get to keep fresh bigs on the floor all game long. And they’re all capable and they all can do different things. … There are a lot of pieces. If I were a smarter coach, I’d have this figured out quicker. But we’re learning.”