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Player development, last season’s success, Twitter polls, relentless pursuit: How BYU coaching staff landed 7-3 Purdue transfer Matt Haarms

The fact that Haarms, a native of Amsterdam, Netherlands, signed with the Cougars Thursday says a lot about the coaching staff’s ability to attract big-time recruits to Provo. 

Purdue center Matt Haarms (32) shoots over Penn State forward Mike Watkins (24) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Penn State defeated Purdue 88-76. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
AP

PROVO — Not long after Purdue’s 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms entered the transfer portal earlier this month, BYU assistant coach Nick Robinson reached out to the graduate transfer to gauge his interest in the Cougars.

Haarms agreed to talk to the coaching staff via Zoom and he liked what he heard and saw.

“After the call, Matt said something like, ‘There’s nobody more surprised than me, but I actually think I might talk to you guys again,’” said coach Mark Pope. “We just kept hitting it hard like that.”

That’s how the process of Haarms choosing BYU over the likes of Kentucky, Texas Tech and other high-profile programs began.

Purdue center Matt Haarms (32) shoots over Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (15) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Illinois defeated Purdue 79-62. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
AP

The fact that Haarms, a native of Amsterdam, Netherlands, who played for three seasons with the Boilermakers, signed with the Cougars Thursday speaks volumes about the coaching staff’s ability to attract big-time recruits to Provo.

But Pope, who’s entering his second season at the helm, shared much more Friday about Haarms’ recruitment — including the emphasis on the staff’s ability to develop talent, last season’s success and the impression BYU fans have made on the big Dutchman.

First, what was it like for Pope to win this kind of recruiting battle against his alma mater, Kentucky, and other elite programs?

“We’re doing the right thing when we’re recruiting against good teams. It gives you a lot of confidence because it means you’re probably hanging out at the right part of the (transfer) portal,” Pope said. “Has there been a more successful university at recruiting than Kentucky over the last 10 years? There’s good reason for that. And (coach) Chris Beard at Texas Tech, what he’s done in his tenure there so far has been extraordinary.

We were so excited to be in the final three because the list of 10 was a list of who’s who in college basketball. When we got to the final three, we had to really work hard to let Matt know who we were and let him decide if it was a good fit. I hope that we spend a lot of time recruiting against Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Texas Tech and all the great programs. That’s where you should live if you are a legitimate program. It’s really hard to win, but when you find the right guys, you have a chance.”

BYU’s 24-8 record last season, including an upset of No. 2 Gonzaga, also helped grab Haarms’ attention.

“We don’t get to have this conversation about Matt Haarms if Jake Toolson and Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws and Dalton Nixon and Zac Seljaas and the rest of the team don’t accomplish what they accomplished last year,” Pope said. “That’s why we get to be in these conversations. That senior night (against the Zags) and other games throughout the season captured the attention of the entire country. It’s because of these players. That’s why we get to recruit against those big dogs. It’s pretty fun.”

During the pandemic, Twitter polls have been popular pastimes, particularly for zealous BYU fans. They voted Cosmo the No. 1 mascot in the country and BYU is a finalist to win another ongoing poll that crowns the nation’s top fan base.

“These polls mean something. I know they’re ridiculous and we vote for the best mascot and the best fan base in the country. It’s ridiculous and silly. But you know what? That’s what being a fan is,” Pope said. “This fan base here at BYU went a long way to winning this Matt Haarms. That’s not an overstatement. When we talk about doing this together, we all recruited this kid together.”

Purdue center Matt Haarms (32) celebrates a basket against Wisconsin during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in West Lafayette, Ind., Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
AP

Pope credited his “amazing” staff, including Robinson and his other assistants, Cody Fueger and Chris Burgess for their “relentless” work ethic.

Haarms has aspirations to play in the NBA, and Pope and his staff believe they can help put him in a position to get there.

“The only thing that we do well is develop players. That’s it. I haven’t coached an NCAA tournament game. There’s a million things we haven’t done, but the one thing we can do is develop players,” Pope said. “When we recruit, we go to that immediately. That has to do with him becoming a great player, growing his game and having a chance to play at the next level.”

The coaching staff’s emphasis on analytics also played a role in Haarms’ recruitment.

“Our first or second conversation with Matt, we drilled him so hard on the analytical evaluation of his game. It was an approach to growing his game that he was unfamiliar with. It was something he was excited about engaging in,” Pope said. “He learned things about his game that he didn’t know. For a guy like Matt that’s so hungry to grow his game, when you can show him things about his own game that he’s unaware of, it’s really exhilarating.

All of that feeds into this idea of how badly he wants to not only grow his game in college but also have a chance to be a pro. That’s something we take really seriously. It’s important to us. These kids put so much trust in us that if we don’t help them grow, we’re failing them. We don’t like to fail. It’s very personal to us. I think Matt can feel that. I think he got that from watching our program and talking to our guys.”

Before he began recruiting Haarms, Pope had watched him play at Purdue.

“The thing that stuck out to me was the passion he plays with on the floor. I can’t wait for BYU fans to enjoy this young man because he played so hard and so passionate and he’s so demonstrative,” Pope said. “His list was everybody in the country from the get-go. You just don’t find players with his size and skillset with his experience and maturity very often.

When we recruit, we want guys to know us, know what we’re about and know what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s all FaceTime and Zoom calls. Matt was gracious enough and mature enough to give us a real chance. I think we really bonded and I think he really believes in BYU and what we’re doing.”

Pope can’t wait for BYU fans to become acquainted with Haarms, who is immediately eligible and has one year of eligibility remaining.

“I got to know him more than he ever wanted to know any human being in the world over the last two weeks or so. He’s an extraordinary young man,” Pope said. “I feel this urgency for BYU fans to get to know him because he’s only going to be here for one year and it’s going to come and go so fast. I don’t want people to miss out on him, because he’s got so much depth and he’s such a fascinating human being. He’s got so much goodness to him. He’s going to do so much on this court.”