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Promising start: In Mark Pope’s 1st season at the helm, BYU overcame myriad challenges to record one of the best seasons in school history

The No. 18 Cougars (24-8) returned to the national rankings for the first time in nine years and were poised to go to the NCAA Tournament — projected as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed — for the first time in five years. 

BYU Cougars head coach Mark Pope instructs in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. BYU won 96-70.
BYU Cougars head coach Mark Pope instructs in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020. BYU won 96-70.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

PROVO — What defined the BYU basketball program’s 2019-20 season wasn’t just its accomplishments, as impressive as those were. The campaign was also defined by the adversity the Cougars had to overcome in coach Mark Pope’s first year at the helm.

And that adversity never subsided.

No. 18 BYU (24-8) returned to the national rankings for the first time in nine years and finished in sole possession of second place in the West Coast Conference standings for the first time since joining the league in 2011-12.

The Cougars, who finished No. 9 in the NET rankings, were poised to go to the NCAA Tournament — widely projected as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed — for the first time in five years.

In the end, their season ended abruptly in unprecedented fashion when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the spread of COVID-19.

“It wasn’t suspensions or injuries or coaching changes or a roster overhaul or adversity or tough losses or an incredibly tough, difficult schedule,” Pope said. “The one thing that stopped this team is a pandemic. I do believe that this group was so committed that there was nothing that was going to stop them besides something otherworldly.”

Three of BYU’s eight losses were at the hands of No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Gonzaga and No. 6 San Diego State, teams that posted a combined record of 87-7. The Cougars’ season was highlighted by upsets over No. 2 Gonzaga — an epic 91-78 victory on Senior Night in front of a sellout crowd at the Marriott Center — and against No. 22 Houston.

TJ Haws hit a pair of unforgettable game-winning shots at Houston and at home against Saint Mary’s, the last one hours before the birth of his first child.

Three of BYU’s other losses came in overtime on the road and their final two setbacks were both by one point each — 83-82 at San Francisco and 51-50 against Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament. The Cougars won nine of their final 10 games.

Who knows what a senior-laden BYU team that led the nation in 3-point shooting (332 of 786 for 42%) might have accomplished in the NCAA Tournament?

“In a basketball sense, for this team, it’s really tragic that they don’t have a chance to finish it,” Pope said. “Their legacy here at BYU is intact.”

There were plenty of examples of personal resilience and redemption on this team, from Yoeli Childs returning for his senior year after declaring for the NBA draft a year ago; to Jake Toolson returning to BYU, the school he transferred from before playing two seasons at Utah Valley University; to Haws dealing with high expectations throughout his career.

“You think about the storybook moments that we had in the season. They’ve all been well-chronicled. We’ve shared them all together and we’ve talked about them,” Pope said. “It seems like a decade’s worth of extraordinary stories in terms of drama, roster, dealing with injuries and game-winning heroics and incredible streaks and career-long sagas of redemption and coming back. The stories are endless. You could write a book and not have enough pages to contain all of the extraordinary stories of this team.”

The Cougars did their best to not allow injuries, illnesses and a suspension disrupt the season. Instead, they used those challenges as a catalyst to achieve what many didn’t think was possible.

Childs missed 13 games due to a nine-game NCAA suspension and a finger injury; Dalton Nixon missed the final five games due to an ankle injury; Gavin Baxter suffered a shoulder injury in late September and missed the first 25 games before burning his redshirt year to play in the final seven games; Kolby Lee missed a game in December due to a minor knee injury and was sidelined for the loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament due to illness. Trevin Knell missed nine games due to a finger injury.

On top of that, Toolson injured his ankle against Saint Mary’s on Feb. 1 and left the game before returning moments later. He didn’t miss a game all season. Neither did Connor Harding, who was dealing with a knee injury for much of the season. Meanwhile, guard Jesse Wade didn’t play this season due to injury. And Zac Seljaas broke his foot during the team’s exhibition tour of Italy back in August 2019 but never missed a game.

Despite the challenges, BYU never lost two consecutive games all season.

Meanwhile, the Cougars broke a school record with 18 3-pointers in a game at Loyola Marymount and hit 17 against Virginia Tech and Pepperdine. In all, BYU recorded 16 games with double-digit 3-pointers this season, which is also a school record.

BYU was the first college basketball team since 2004 to have a pair of players ranked in the top five in the nation in 3-point percentage — Alex Barcello (49.1%, 3rd) and Toolson (46.9%, 5th).

Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) battles Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) for the rebound as Utah and BYU play an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won in overtime 102-95.
BYU forward Yoeli Childs battles Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen for the rebound Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won in overtime 102-95.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Childs finished No. 6 (2,031 points) all-time in scoring at BYU and Haws finished No. 7 (1,899). Childs also finished as the school’s No. 1 career rebounder (1,053) and No. 2 in career double-doubles (45). Haws finished No. 2 all-time in assists (603) and started every game of his Cougar career, finishing with 133 consecutive starts, also a school record.

BYU boasted a roster of seven seniors, including Childs, Haws and Seljaas, who never had the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s devastating for them, especially my seniors. They’ve been working toward this and fighting for this ... over the last four or five years,” Pope said. “And then to do everything humanly possible to earn it and have earned it in an extraordinary way and playing so incredibly well … It’s excruciating for these guys and it’s hard for us. That’s our experience right now. If I could control everything in the world, we would find some way to have this tournament just because my heart’s broken for these kids.”

What will Pope carry with him from this team?

“I love these young men. It’s an extraordinary and humbling thing when young men are willing to give you their trust. That’s a real gift to the coach,” he said. “It’s the building blocks and foundations of a group that can be really special.

“These guys are unbelievably generous to each other and our staff. It happened way too fast. We’re supposed to have more time to evaluate everything and soak it in and figure it out. We’ll be able to do that in the coming weeks. If there’s one thing that’s extraordinary about this team is the love that we feel for each other.”