PROVO — From the outset of his BYU career, it seemed like guard Alex Barcello had been playing for the Cougars, and with his teammates, for years.
In reality, he had joined the team only a few months earlier.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior’s collegiate journey began with being a member of the ESPN Top 100 recruiting class in 2017 to being weighed down by frustration and disillusionment at Arizona, one of the most prominent hoops programs in the country.
But it was clear during BYU’s season opener against Cal State Fullerton in early November at the Marriott Center that he had been reborn, in a basketball sense.
“Being here, I’ve been so happy because I feel like I’ve found myself again and I can be myself every single day,” Barcello said. “And the guys love me for it. The coaching staff loves me for it.”
Talk about bursting onto the scene.
Against Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 5, in Mark Pope’s official debut as BYU’s head coach, Barcello, who had received a waiver from the NCAA to play this season after transferring from Arizona, scored a then career-high 17 points in a 76-58 victory.
“I was just happy for him,” said his father, Edward. “He seemed happy, energetic and intense. He seemed like the old Alex.”
In that game, and in every game since, Barcello has displayed a defensive intensity that’s contagious. And he has proven to be an emotional leader, someone who isn’t afraid to show his emotions and his exuberance for the game of basketball.
“His energy and his effort and his demeanor out on the floor, he’s just a team guy,” said guard TJ Haws. “He comes in and makes tough, effort plays and elevates the play of the whole team.”
“It’s crazy. We all wondered how he would fit in when he first got here,” said forward Dalton Nixon. “But there hasn’t been a question that it’s the perfect place for him. What he brings to our team, including off the court, is something special. He’s a really genuine guy. He has a great life ahead of him. It’s a special time for all of us to be here together.”
After spending two checkered seasons in Tucson, Barcello arrived in Provo in August 2019 as a transfer. He appealed to the NCAA to waive the rule that requires transfers to sit out one year before becoming eligible.
In late October, after a string of bad news involving the NCAA’s suspension of Yoeli Childs and a serious injury to Gavin Baxter, word came that the NCAA had granted the waiver, making him immediately eligible.
“He’s so unique. Here’s a Power Five player that’s come here not just because he wants to play but because he wants BYU. He loves it. He wants the honor code. He wants the focus. He wants this team and this staff,” Pope said. “He’s an extraordinary fit. He fits us, man, and we fit him. I fit him as a coach, basketball-wise, and he fits me as a player in terms of how he wants to approach this game. This university fits him in terms of what he cares about. He fits us in terms of how we expect him to conduct himself here. It’s a good match.”
Against Cal State Fullerton, Barcello hit 7 of 9 shots from the floor, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range while contributing three steals, two assists and two blocked shots, a harbinger of what he would be providing this season.
“He’s a bulldog of a physical player,” Pope said. “He’s capable of really pressuring the ball. He can get wherever he wants to on the floor. He has another gear where he can get there really fast. He’s a pretty creative passer.”
Barcello has been flourishing as a consistent contributor, having started every game, averaging 10 points and three rebounds per contest. He’s shooting 50% from the field, 48% from 3-point range and 88% from the free throw line.
In December, Barcello endeared himself to BYU fans to an even higher level at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City against in-state rival Utah State. The Cougars were clinging to a one-point lead when Barcello took a pass in the corner and knocked down a 3-pointer with 27 seconds remaining in a 68-64 victory, though he had missed his previous three 3-point attempts against the Aggies.
“Time after time after time, he comes up with game-winning plays for us,” Pope said.
But before making an immediate impact at BYU, Barcello was the No. 2 recruit in the state of Arizona in 2017. At Corona del Sol High School, he was named the 2015 and 2017 Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year and helped guide the school to two 6A state championships. Barcello received 28 scholarship offers before signing with national powerhouse Arizona and coach Sean Miller.
But Barcello played sparingly as a freshman and sophomore with the Wildcats and he didn’t exactly feel comfortable off the court. He averaged 2.4 points as a freshman and 3.3 as a sophomore.
“Arizona’s a great program. It just didn’t feel like the right fit. Every day, I felt like something was off and I didn’t feel like I could be myself and I didn’t feel like my true colors could come out,” Barcello said. “I had a rough two years at Arizona. Things didn’t work out the way I thought they would. I stayed after my freshman year, thinking it would get better. I worked even harder in the summer. I came back and my sophomore year didn’t go how I wanted it to again. I kept working but I reflected on both of my years and thought that I needed a better opportunity for myself and my goals after college. I came to that decision. Thankfully, this coaching staff believed in me and gave me the opportunity to come here and play. I’ve been so grateful to them.”
Last spring, Barcello entered the transfer portal and was recruited by Pope and his staff. Barcello felt wanted, again.
“The coaches showed me clips and film. The style of play that they were telling me and the stats they pulled up from Arizona and telling me how they would use me here, I was like, ‘Man, that’s where I feel like I can be successful,’” he said. “They were looking at my strengths and the strengths that I know are my strengths, they were seeing the same strengths and they were going to utilize those to the best of their abilities. We have concepts that we play with offensively, we have set plays but there’s a lot of freedom within the concepts that we play with offensively. I felt like it was the right fit for me, being the guard that I am.”
But would Barcello, who is Catholic, be comfortable at BYU, a school owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? A place where many of his teammates would be returned missionaries, some married with children?
“I’m not an LDS member but my morals and values are the same,” Barcello said. “I strive to be the best person I can be every single day. I’m a people person. I care about others. It’s an environment that I feel like I should be in. I feel like I do fit here perfectly.”
When he was told during the recruiting process that he needed to sign an honor code in order to enroll, he didn’t flinch.
“They were like, you’ve got to sign this. I didn’t know it was a thing when I was talking to them,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘There’s no problem with that.’ I abide by all of those rules. I don’t see myself doing anything other than that.”
Edward Barcello figured BYU was right for his son.
“I thought it would be a very good fit for him. It’s a lot different environment than where he was at. They are two different environments,” he said. “At Arizona, there are a lot of kids that think they are one-and-done (to the National Basketball Association). They go out on the weekends. At BYU, there’s not that same mentality. It’s more about family and there are a lot of players that are married and have kids. As a parent, you want your kids in the best environment possible.”
Barcello assimilated into the BYU basketball culture and the campus culture almost seamlessly.
“It’s been great. Immediately when he got here we got together as a team and he fit right in,” Haws said. “He’s interested in, and we’ve had talks about religion, and things like that. He’s a religious guy and he seems interested. He’s fit in really well and it’s been fun to have him here.”
“He’s been a perfect fit for us and I think we’ve been a perfect fit for him, too. He’s one of the best human beings I’ve met. He has a heart of gold,” Nixon said. “He’s quickly become a best friend to almost everyone on the team. It’s such a huge blessing for us to have Alex. I also feel that it’s a special opportunity for Alex to be at BYU, where there’s so much support. That’s my guy. I really do love Alex and he’s been huge on the court. He may have an even bigger impact off the court, being a friend and a great teammate to all of us.”
Part of Barcello’s value to BYU has been his ability to impact a game in ways that don’t show up in the box score.
“He’s so good in transition. His decision-making in transition has been impeccable the last few games — off-the-charts,” Pope said after last week’s win over Pepperdine, “... but the things that he’s turning down to create better plays for his teammates in transition, the pace that he’s running the lane right now, all those things are really special. For people that know the game, he looks like his minutes are big-time minutes on the floor. I’m really proud of him.”
Edward Barcello is happy his son received a second chance in his college career and is making the most of it.
“I thank God for the opportunity. I believe he has the opportunity to achieve his goals,” he said. “I think he feels appreciated. This is a wonderful opportunity for him.”
For Alex Barcello, he’s enjoying this fresh start, which he knows will have enduring consequences.
“My experience here has been unbelievable,” he said. “I came in August and ever since then, my teammates and I have built such close relationships and great friendships that I think are going to last a lifetime. I’m extremely blessed.”
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