PROVO — In his first season as BYU’s head coach, Mark Pope installed a new system and a new style.
He took a roster featuring a mix of seasoned veterans, somewhat inexperienced role players and transfers and turned it into a team that led the nation in 3-point shooting, posted a 24-8 record and was projected as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament that was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Heading into his second campaign, Pope has had to replace seven seniors and has assembled an impressive collection of newcomers.
Can he and the Cougars replicate similar magic this season despite all of the roster turnover?
Pope talks frequently about creating “the best locker room in America” and that’s what he’s aiming for again this season. The challenge is accomplishing that with so many players from so many different backgrounds — returning veterans (Alex Barcello, Kolby Lee, Connor Harding, Gavin Baxter, Trevin Knell and Jesse Wade), grad transfers (Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette), JUCO transfers (Spencer Johnson and Gideon George), redshirts (Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell) and incoming freshmen (Caleb Lohner and Hunter Erickson).
The first stage of that process began during the recent recruiting period, Pope said.
“It’s interesting because so many people were inspired by how these players performed last year. You’re immediately drawn to it. Then there are some guys that are looking for something different,” he said. “Some grad transfers want to be a 30 (point) and 10 (rebound) guy every game, regardless of what a defense is dictating. That’s not a great fit for how we are. That’s one example of a hundred different ways where you might dig deeper in the process and feel like this might not be the right fit for me. Or the right fit for us. What captured everyone’s attention last season was how we had these great players that were more interested in fighting for each other than for themselves. As we began to have those conversations about how exactly that happened, with some guys, it wasn’t exactly what they were looking for or what we were looking for. That’s a huge, important step.”
BYU players have been participating in voluntary workouts since June 1. On July 20, the Cougars begin practicing as a team with the coaches involved in on-court activities.
In the meantime, Pope has been holding Zoom team calls and filmwork for the past several weeks as part of instilling the principles of cohesion and unselfishness.
“That starts the process of really teaching guys on a deeper level what that means and also our returning players teaching all these new faces what that means and demanding that from themselves and from each other,” Pope said. “If we’re good at what we do, that will become a core principle year after year here at BYU. It’s a massive challenge. I don’t think what we’re searching for exists at many very programs at a consistent level. It’s something we take really seriously and we talk about every day as a staff about different ways to help guys embrace that. Hopefully, if we do our job well, we’ll see that regularly here. It’s what BYU basketball should be.”
Baxter acknowledges the tall task of molding a team together after a lot of turnover, but he’s confident that everything will come together.
“It’s definitely a totally different dynamic because you had the seven seniors that brought a ton of experience. Now we’re transitioning to a ton of new guys. They’re new to BYU, even new to the state of Utah. We have a lot of room to grow together as a team to learn the system and to get closer as a team. So it’s definitely a new dynamic,” Baxter said. “My expectations are to have that same chemistry as a team. Looking at our guys right now, having met them, there’s really nobody that’s going to bring us down. Everybody is on the same page, as far as I can see. Everybody wants to win and everybody wants to work hard. At the end of the day, that’s all I can ask for as a leader of this team.”
How does Lowell describe the makeup of the current roster compared to last year?
“The big thing is our experience and togetherness. Those guys last year played with each other for quite a while,” he said. “Whereas this year, we’re just meeting each other so we don’t have that togetherness and experience. But what we do have is that same fire and drive to get better. That talent is there to be just as good if not better. We’re going to have to build off that fire and energy we have to come together and make it all work.”
Harward has high expectations for this season.
“This team is very similar to last year but it’s also very different. In terms of the different talents guys have, we’re definitely a lot bigger than we were last year,” he said. “But in terms of the locker room, I feel like this is a continuation. All the guys get along with each other. We have the best locker room in America.”