PROVO — Since the day he was hired at BYU last April, coach Mark Pope has talked openly about his players and his staff being “relentless” in terms of working and competing every day.

The Cougars’ ability to do this up to this point has put them in position to accomplish “big goals and big aspirations,” according to Pope. BYU has already won as many games (19) as it did all of last season. 

Pope speaks like a man that has accomplished big goals and big aspirations — because he has. As a player, he helped Kentucky win the 1996 NCAA championship. 

“We’d like to win — a lot. The one thing that pushes us forward is these guys have invested so much. They’ve invested so much physically, starting with two-a-days this past summer. They’ve put in so much time and had a shorthanded roster, having guys in and out of the lineup. They’ve had unbelievable, remarkable success so far this season.

BYU builds a big lead against USF and watches Dons rally, again — but this time the Cougars hold on for 90-76 victory
BYU’s Gavin Baxter plays limited minutes, but provides excitement for fans and teammates
3 takeaways from the BYU Cougars’ 90-76 victory over the San Francisco Dons

“They’ve gotten better,” Pope added. “If we’ll invest everything we have, which very few teams now can be in that conversation, right? But we can. And if we’ll do it, then really, the outcome is probably going to be less important than the fact that you’ve made it through a season and gave it everything you had to a team. I know I’m talking in vague speech, but that’s the truth. I’ve lived it.” 

After BYU’s 90-76 victory over San Francisco Saturday at the Marriott Center, coupled with Saint Mary’s 90-60 loss to No. 2 Gonzaga, the Cougars (19-7, 8-3) now sit all alone in second place in the West Coast Conference standings behind the Zags. 

BYU is looking to secure the No. 2 seed in the WCC Tournament in March and a bye all the way to the tournament semifinals.

San Francisco Dons guard Jamaree Bouyea (1) tries to drive on Brigham Young Cougars guard Connor Harding (44) and Brigham Young Cougars forward Gavin Baxter (25) in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

And the news got even better Saturday when jumping-jack forward Gavin Baxter, who suffered a torn labrum last September, returned to the court. 

“Gavin Baxter has sacrificed a whole season to try to come help this team,” Pope said.

The Cougars, who have won four straight games, travel to Loyola Marymount (8-16, 2-8) and San Diego (8-17, 1-9) Thursday and Saturday, respectively. 

Following Saturday’s win over USF, Pope waxed poetic about what his team can accomplish if it continues to be relentless. 

“We are a freaking dangerous team right now. We are dangerous. But we can’t be satisfied. Every team is going to make a decision in February and probably keep making that decision every day in February — whether they’re done … or whether they’re going to come every single minute of every single day and fight and this team can actually do it,” Pope said. “We talk about having the best locker room in America all the time. That’s what the best locker room in America does.

“The best locker room in America comes and competes every single minute of every single day … If you do this right, at the end of the season, you are essentially dead inside. You have nothing left. You’ve called forth every deep reserve that you possibly have in your being to compete every single day at the highest level. And you’ll have nothing left. Then every day for the rest of your life, that will get sweeter and sweeter and sweeter, if you can invest that much. This team is on their way to doing it.”

For now, Pope knows the Cougars can’t afford to stumble on the road against teams like LMU or San Diego. 

“We have a huge game at LMU,” he said. “Right now, we’re still in the hunt.” 

How good can this team be?

“We can be as good as anybody. Maybe not on paper, but in terms of performance, we can be as good as anybody,” Pope said. “Only the greatest championship teams are willing to do that. We’re chasing lofty goals ... We’re chasing things that we don’t even like to say out loud because they’re so scary. We can’t afford to breathe. We don’t get the luxury of breathing.”

Pope knows what it takes.

Cougars on the air

BYU (19-7, 8-3) at Loyola Marymount (8-16, 2-8)

Thursday, 9 p.m. MST

Gersten Pavilion


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM