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‘He’s our engine’: How BYU’s Alex Barcello went from role player to team leader — and star

Though Barcello is the Cougars’ leading scorer and the leader in assists, that only begins to shed light on his impact

BYU guard Alex Barcello passes to Gideon George during a game against Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. Though Barcello is the Cougars’ leading scorer and the leader in assists, that only begins to shed light on his impact, writes Jeff Call.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

If anyone is wondering how valuable Alex Barcello is to BYU’s basketball program as a leader and a catalyst, the senior guard demonstrated why once again, emphatically, in the Cougars’ recent double-overtime win over Pacific.

Coming into the game, Barcello had been mired in a shooting and scoring slump. In the previous six January games, he had made just 19 of 57 shots from the floor (33%) and 5 of 24 (21%) from 3-point range.

Then, after scoring just two points at halftime against Pacific, he exploded for 23 points, hit 7 of 11 shots from the floor, collected a career-high nine rebounds and added seven assists in 44 minutes of action as he willed the Cougars to a 95-87 victory to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

Though Barcello, a 6-foot-2 native of Chandler, Arizona, is BYU’s leading scorer and is the leader in assists, that only begins to shed light on his impact.

“Alex, he’s our engine. He gets us going. He’s always bringing us together, talking to us,” said guard Brandon Averette, who scored 24 points against the Tigers. “Everything he says is always true. And he gives his all on both ends of the floor. You never question his leadership. He’s a great lead-by-example guy. He brings it every single day. You always hear his voice. I love playing with him.”

Through 18 games, Barcello averaged 15.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists with 16 steals. He shot 52% from the field, 48% from 3 and 84% from the free-throw line. But his many contributions don’t always show up in the box score.

Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) smiles and applauds after getting an offensive foul called on Weber State Wildcats guard Seikou Sisoho Jawara (5) as BYU and Weber State play an NCAA basketball game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
BYU guard Alex Barcello (13) smiles and applauds after getting an offensive foul called on Weber State Wildcats guard Seikou Sisoho Jawara as BYU and Weber State play at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

In the first half against Pacific, Trevin Knell shot a transition 3 that resulted in an airball. But the hustling Barcello dove for the ball out of bounds and tipped it to Spencer Johnson, who buried a 3. In the second half, he tossed a nifty, no-look, over-the-shoulder pass to Matt Haarms for a key bucket. With 2:19 remaining in regulation, Barcello dove on the floor, tying up a Pacific player, giving BYU the ball back with the alternating possession arrow.

And he’s been making plays like that throughout the season and his career.

At the end of December, entering West Coast Conference play, Barcello was shooting 61% from the field and an unreal 63% from 3-point territory.

But no matter what his stats look like, he isn’t concerned about that. He doesn’t obsess with numbers. He’s all about winning games.

“I credit the trust the guys have in me to lead this team. It gives me a lot of confidence going into every game,” he said. “I’m not worried about missing a couple of shots. I just want to bring everything I can energy-wise on the defensive side of the ball and create for guys on the offensive end if my shot isn’t falling.”

‘Dive into it with all my heart’

To understand Barcello’s drive and passion this season, look back to last March, when the Cougars saw their dream of playing in the NCAA Tournament dashed due to the pandemic.

Barcello turned that disappointment and frustration into action. The Cougars lost seven seniors off a team that posted a 24-8 record, leaving a massive leadership void going into his senior year.

BYU guard Alex Barcello prepares to pass the ball during a game against Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

Though for a while he and his teammates weren’t on campus together due to the pandemic, Barcello, an Arizona Wildcats transfer, bonded with his teammates, leading them via FaceTime meetings three days a week.

“I’m trying to lead this team and get all the guys on the same page like we were last year,” Barcello said last May. “I need to be a huge leader on next year’s team.”

Now, months later, entering the final month of the regular season, his efforts, on the court and behind the scenes, have paid off for the Cougars.

“I told the coaching staff this summer, I’ve had multiple talks with the guys and was telling them, ‘We’re all in this together. We’ve got one goal. If you give me that trust to lead this team, I’m going to dive into it with all of my heart,’” Barcello said.

For BYU coach Mark Pope, there was a vintage Barcello moment before the Pacific game. As the team huddled for a final pregame talk before tipoff, the players raised their hands into a pyramid, Barcello made sure to involve injured walk-on Townsend Tripple.

“Townsend Tripple has been hurt for three months. He’s missed the whole season. He hasn’t traveled with us. He’s a walk-on,” Pope said. “There’s a hundred reasons why he could feel not totally engaged. He doesn’t practice with us because he’s hurt. He’s kind of sheepishly walking into the huddle.

“I noticed Alex subtly grab his wrist pull it up into the center of the huddle. That is Alex Barcello. He is working so hard to bring everybody into this circle because he knows that we need everybody. Even Townsend Tripple. Alex is like, ‘No, you’re on this team and we’re in this together.’ I really believe that’s his special sauce. It’s pretty extraordinary how hard he’s working to lead this team.”

Assertive and tenacious

All season long, Barcello has been the focal point of opposing teams’ defensive game plans. He’s been hounded, badgered, hip-checked, bumped, knocked down.

Former BYU star Tyler Haws, the Cougars’ all-time leading scorer, can empathize. That’s the same treatment he received during his career.

And that’s why Haws, who is now a BYUtv analyst, has been so impressed with Barcello’s performance this season.

“Alex comes into a game and teams are keying on him for sure. Whether he’s scoring or not, he’s a facilitator and a playmaker,” Haws said. “Alex doesn’t care about scoring all the time. He just wants to make the right basketball play, which is special for how he’s playing as a senior. You’ve seen seniors say, ‘This is my show.’ That’s not Alex’s mindset at all. It’s all about making the right play and finding a way to win.”

“He’s been really assertive and tenacious. Not in terms of manufacturing numbers but in terms of finding ways to lead this team,” Pope said of Barcello. “He’s been inexhaustible that way. It’s all the little things that have made him a special leader of this group.”

During the broadcast of the BYU-Portland game on Jan. 21, CBS Sports analyst Avery Johnson, a former NBA and college player, and coach, said Barcello reminds him of Utah Jazz legend John Stockton.

Last season, opposing teams focused their defense on guys like Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson, this season, Barcello has been the focal point, trying to keep the ball out of his hands. But he’s found ways to help the Cougars win.

“Alex has been fantastic. You look at his numbers and it’s historic stuff. There was a good stretch of the season where he was shooting 60%-plus from 3. Ridiculous numbers,” Tyler Haws said. “So efficient, so effective. He’s super selective with the shots he takes and the times he attacks.

“He’s a really good decision-maker, knowing what’s a good shot and what’s not a good shot. He’s a playmaker and he makes everybody better on the floor,” he continued. “He’s so unselfish. You can tell he’s a leader. He’s so respected in the locker room among coaches and players. I expect him to come back strong and finish this season out the way he started it.”

As important as he was to last season’s success as a role player, Barcello has stepped into the main point guard role and has had to deal with a lot of different defensive schemes.

Pope and assistant Cody Fueger have spent considerable time watching film with Barcello, trying to figure out ways to offset whatever defensive game plans are thrown his way.

“I have all the trust in my coaching staff,” Barcello said. “I’m just trying to do what they tell me out there and show me in film, different ways that we can pick apart the defense when they’re trying not to let me get a catch, how we can play around that.”

Barcello credits Pope, Fueger and strength and conditioning coach Erick Schork for spurring him to strive to reach his ultimate potential.

“They do such a great job of helping me refocus myself on leading this team, bringing as much energy and leadership as I can every day,” he said. “That’s my main focus every game.”

Not toothless

Barcello has always been willing to sacrifice his body for the team.

“Alex is a pitbull,” said assistant coach Chris Burgess.

For example, during BYU’s win over Pepperdine on Jan. 23, he dove for a loose ball in the first half and was elbowed in the face. Part of one of his front teeth popped out.

Barcello went to the bench, handed the shard of the chipped tooth to the trainer.

Later, Barcello returned and played the rest of the game. He ended up making four straight free throws in the final minutes to seal the victory.

“After he chipped his tooth, we definitely huddled up as a team and said, ‘Let’s go do this for our brother,’” said Averette. “I mean, they just knocked his tooth out. It gave us a little extra push as a team.”

BYU guard Alex Barcello prepares to pass the ball during game against BYU in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.
Young Kwak, Associated Press

Immediately after the game, Barcello was taken to a dentist, who performed emergency surgery to repair the tooth.

Barcello wears a mouthguard now.

“He’s doing great. He looks as beautiful as ever,” Pope said of Barcello. “Thanks to some great dental work and being a tough kid, he was ready to go Monday at practice. He’s as tough as can be.”

All season long, teams have been physical with Barcello.

“When you go inside, they’re going to try to knock you down,” he said. “That takes a toll as the season goes on. It’s as much a mental challenge to fight through the pain.”

Barcello’s energy lifts his teammates and endears him to BYU faithful.

“He’s not one-dimensional. He gets after it on both ends of the floor. He finds a way to get five or six rebounds every game. He even chipped his tooth,” Haws said. “He’s laying everything out on the line. Cougar fans love that stuff and appreciate guys that are all in. When you have a guy like that as your leader, it affects everybody else in the locker room. He’s an unselfish dude that just wants to win. That’s a big reason why BYU has the team that it has this year.”

Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) gets ready to shoot over the Pepperdine Waves position at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
BYU guard Alex Barcello fights his way through traffic against Pepperdine at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

It ‘means everything to me’

Before transferring to BYU from Arizona during the summer of 2019, Barcello had no ties to BYU. He didn’t know much about the school before Pope and his staff recruited him.

A member of the 2017 ESPN Top 100 recruiting class, Barcello was languishing on the bench with the Wildcats, and was weighed down by frustration and disillusionment. He wanted a fresh start and he found that at BYU.

As a Catholic, Barcello felt comfortable with the standards and values espoused by BYU.

Playing for the Cougars “means everything to me,” Barcello said. “Just having the trust from the coaching staff and my entire team to be the leader on the floor and off the floor and leading this group means everything to me ... My decision to come over here was me deciding to move on from Arizona and then coming into this new opportunity, I decided to give Brigham Young my entire heart.

“I’m going to pour everything I have into it with my energy, with me watching film, with me expanding my game, whatever that may be, I’m going to give it everything I have,” he continued. “It means something really special to me. … I’m pouring my entire heart into this season, into the guys and into this coaching staff. I have unbelievable trust in them. I’m just excited for what the rest of our season has to come.”

Barcello has enjoyed his time at BYU so much that last summer he helped recruit his younger sister, Amanda, to BYU. She’ll join the Cougars next season.

Haws — whose father, Marty, and younger brother, TJ, also starred at BYU — loves Barcello’s passion for playing for the Cougars.

“It’s cool that there are guys that come like Alex and embrace it and they’re all in,” Haws said. “You can see that on the floor with how hard he plays.”

All Barcello cares about is helping guide BYU back to the NCAA Tournament. And it shows.