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How BYU’s game with No. 1 team in the country was scheduled on such short notice

Undeterred, coach Mark Pope and his staff, and associate athletic director Brian Santiago, didn’t want to go another week without a game when it was announced Pacific would not be able to play Thursday at the Marriott Center

SHARE How BYU’s game with No. 1 team in the country was scheduled on such short notice
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BYU head coach Mark Pope talks to his team during game against Utah State Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe has plenty of experience with scheduling college football games during a pandemic, as numerous games were canceled last summer before the season and Holmoe scrambled to cobble together an almost entirely new schedule. 

Since then, the Cougars basketball program has gone through a similar process. BYU managed to play the NCAA maximum 11 nonconference games before having its first three West Coast Conference contests postponed.

“I just love the fact that coach Pope and coach Few get the spirit of the sport. This is a game that they put together.” — Tom Holmoe

Undeterred, coach Mark Pope and his staff, and associate athletic director Brian Santiago, didn’t want to go another week without a game when it was announced Monday that Pacific would not be able to play Thursday at the Marriott Center. 

Pope announced on Twitter Monday night that BYU would be playing Thursday anyway, but didn’t provide details, sparking plenty of speculation. 

Tuesday afternoon, it was announced the Cougars would be visiting No. 1 Gonzaga Thursday in a game that tips off at 6:30 p.m. MDT, and will be televised on ESPN. 

Pope and Gonzaga coach Mark Few discussed the possibilities and decided to make the game a reality. The two programs were originally scheduled to play Feb. 6 in Spokane. This matchup takes the place of that Feb. 6 game. 

“I just love the fact that coach Pope and coach Few get the spirit of the sport. This is a game that they put together. I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Holmoe said Thursday morning on “BYU Sports Nation.” “These two coaches got together and said, ‘Hey, we’re not going to miss a game down the road. ... we’re not going to wait and see if it’s going to be a good situation when that time comes. We both have an opening — let’s play now.’

“That’s the spirit you that have to have to carve through COVID at this time. Obviously, we’ve missed three games. We’re going to make those up. But we’re going to have to be super creative,” he continued. “Right now in scheduling, I don’t get any credit for basketball scheduling. Coach Pope and his staff and Brian Santiago, they’re working their tails off. It’s almost like what football was but in a really condensed time period.

“I’m a little bit tired and fatigued from scheduling. Now the boys get to do basketball. We’re in super good hands. This is a good witness to see that this game came off tonight.”

Holmoe acknowledged that playing the top-ranked team in the country is a huge challenge but it’s one the Cougars embrace.  

“This might be the best Gonzaga team ever. When I say ‘might,’ I might say it is the best Gonzaga team ever.” — Tom Holmoe

“This might be the best Gonzaga team ever,” Holmoe said. “When I say ‘might,’ I might say it is the best Gonzaga team ever.” 

Pope said earlier this week that when last week’s scheduled games at Pepperdine and at San Diego were postponed, he and his staff worked hard to try to find replacement games, though that didn’t come to fruition.

BYU found out the Pepperdine game was postponed while flying on a charter flight to Los Angeles. Santiago told Pope to tell the pilot to turn the plane around and return to Provo, which he did. 

The Cougars learned the game at San Diego was postponed 20 minutes before the team was to board a flight. 

“It’s been a mad scramble. As we found out that we were losing those two games last weekend and this game this week, I really believe that we can’t just expect that we’re going to put these games off and get them back,” Pope said about scheduling. “What we did is start a massive dialogue with the league and coaches around the league. We talked to about a total of 20 teams, some that were missing games because their opponent had been on pause outside of our league.

“Every team that could possibly play inside our league. As soon as we found out our game was canceled on Friday, we called some other teams but it just didn’t work. Every day, multiple times a day, trying to find teams to play.”

Pope has been saying for months that he was planning on scheduling disruptions due to the pandemic. But that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with postponements. 

“We knew there would be hiccups,” he said this week. “We talked all year long that our biggest challenge is can we stay dialed in and focused and not distracted and not reach for that excuse of COVID when the hiccups come. I’m super proud of our team. It was a weird week with everything that went on. It’s been emotionally taxing on the guys.”

BYU’s goal is to play in the NCAA Tournament and to do that, it needs to play games in the regular season to boost its tournament resume. The Cougars were projected as a single-digit seed in last year’s tournament before it was canceled due to COVID.

“We’re all in brand-new territory. I don’t know what’s going to work. But I do think that in general, the teams that are dying to play are probably the teams that are going to come out of this in the best way,” Pope said. “There’s so many of us that are so eager to continue playing. This whole season is a gift that we spent the whole summer wondering if we were going to get. … Hopefully we’ll find a bunch of teams that will want to jump in and play, too.”