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BYU, Mark Pope eye WCC play. What have we learned about the Cougars so far?

A team with extraordinary post depth and red-hot point guard look to chase No. 1 Zags

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BYU head coach Mark Pope talks to his team during its game against Utah on Dec. 12, 2020 at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah.

Courtesy BYU Photo

PROVO — How prepared is BYU to tip off league play?

In a nutshell, the Cougars are far better than they were after losses to Boise State and USC, two tall teams that took advantage of Mark Pope trying to find chemistry with his roster.

Pope, fresh off a contract extension after a 24-8 season, now prepares for an encore heading into the tipoff of West Coast Conference play Thursday at Pepperdine in Firestone Fieldhouse.

His team needs to protect the ball and use its superior height to rebound better and be more accurate on threes.

It will be interesting to see this Pope team compete in league play after losing stars Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws, Jake Toolson, Zac Seljaas and Dalton Nixon. That team scored a major 91-78 upset of Gonzaga in the Marriott Center the final week of last season. That season prematurely ended before the NCAA Tournament in March.

What have we learned about this year’s Cougar team and what is Pope getting out of this squad after losing to USC and Boise State then beating Utah and San Diego State — two teams the Cougars lost to a year ago? Is this a better team? Just a different team? Are its strengths and weaknesses that different?

At this preseason stage a year ago, BYU was 11-4. Right now, the Cougars are 9-2 with four fewer games played due to COVID-19.

A year ago, Pope created one of the nation’s top 3-point shooting offenses, averaging a sizzling 42.2% from beyond the arc. This week, the Cougars are shooting 36.1%, a fairly good drop, but still fairly high statistically.

This Pope edition is outrebounding opponents by a +4.3 margin, better than last year’s 1 average rebound better. A year ago the Cougars averaged 11.1 turnovers and right now the Cougars are giving it back an average of 14.4 per game — not good.

A year ago the Cougars averaged 79.6 points a game. Today, this squad averages 78.9, which is sure to see closer games in WCC play, especially among the top teams like No. 1 Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s and San Francisco.

Point guard Alex Barcello is BYU’s biggest story through 11 games this winter. Barcello is charged with delivering the scoring dependability of Haws and Toolson, and is by far the best pilot to run the offense.

Barcello deserves an A for his efforts so far. He’s been decisive, mature, exceptional with decisions and has fast-drawn the scrutiny of opposing defenses. National collegiate basketball analyst Andy Katz wrote a story this month calling Barcello “one of the best-kept secrets” in college basketball. Weber State coach Randy Rahe said no guard in the country is playing better than Barcello.

Consider the shiny parts of Barcello’s stat line: 67 of 110 (.609) shooting from the field, 29-46 (.630) from 3-point land. He has 53 assists to 22 turnovers. He is BYU’s most productive player per minute played and he rarely takes an ill-advised shot.

CBS Sports analyst John Rothstein recently tweeted: “There’s absolutely no way that BYU would be 9-2 without him.”

“Could an All-American emerge from the WCC at a school other than Gonzaga? Don’t rule it out of the realm of possibility if Barcello continues to play at his current level,” Rothstein wrote. “The 6-foot-2 guard has fully taken over the role that TJ Haws played last season for the Cougars, thriving at the point of attack while also doing everything else that’s associated with winning.”

If UVU transfer guard Brandon Averette can impact games as he did in last week’s wins over SDSU and Weber State, it will go a long way in helping Barcello deliver consistency to a backcourt set to feed some very big post players.

It is hard to remember a time BYU has had this much post depth, even with the season-ending injury to starter Gavin Baxter. Purdue transfer 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms, 6-10 sophomore Kolby Lee, 6-11 junior Richard Harward, 6-10 sophomore Wyatt Lowell join 6-8 freshman Caleb Lohner as a solid train of tall mass to throw in the paint for defense, offense and rebounds.

This kind of depth caused big issues for SDSU and Utah around Christmas time.

This post arsenal has put the onus on Pope for in-game adjustments and decisions during the flow of the game to rotate players according to matchups and needs. That he has a lot of choices will prove key to WCC teams not named Gonzaga with less depth inside.

Preseason rankings are very tough to put a value on but Fox Sports has BYU as a No. 7 seed in late December. Associated Press poll voters give BYU 12 points, which is No. 35.

SDSU was ranked 18th when BYU beat the Aztecs on their home court. Katz has Boise State ranked 23rd and BYU 24th in his NCAA.com column.

Pope has his work cut out for him. The No. 1 Zags have the eyes of the country on them as the No. 1 seed come March.

Can the Cougars beat Mark Few’s team like a year ago? He labels his team with “best locker room in the country” and so far you can’t argue with the brag. But will that register wins?

Stay tuned.