PROVO — At a place like BYU, where many of its basketball players, including its biggest stars and revered legends, are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s notable that this year’s team, which is seeking the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in six years, is led by three senior starters that aren’t members of the school’s sponsoring institution.
This trio started their respective careers at Power Five programs before making their way to Provo to play for coach Mark Pope and his staff. Alex Barcello (Arizona), Brandon Averette (Oklahoma State/Utah Valley University) and Matt Haarms (Purdue), the team’s top three scoring leaders, are thriving with the Cougars.
That’s a development that Tyler Haws, BYU’s all-time leading scorer and a man who took two years off during his career to serve a church mission to the Philippines, likes to see for the program.
“I think it’s awesome. BYU is a special place. In the recruiting process, there’s a lot of shade thrown at BYU,” Haws said, alluding to the fact that BYU, owned and operated by the church, requires students to live by a strict honor code. “Coach Pope has been able to go out and recruit guys saying, ‘This is a higher standard here. We’re going to hold you to a higher standard. But it’s setting up a good foundation for the rest of your life.’ If you want to go to school and it’s all about drinking, parties and girls, then BYU’s not the place for you.
“But if you want to get a great education and be held to a high standard, and play a high level of basketball, and all the other good things that come with BYU, then BYU’s the place.’ Coach Pope has been able to get guys with that recruiting mindset. It’s cool that there are guys that come and embrace it.”
One of those players that has embraced the BYU culture without much prior knowledge about it was Haarms, a 7-foot-3 native of the Netherlands.
After spending three years at Purdue, Haarms was ready for a change. As soon as he put his name into the transfer portal last spring, dozens of schools across the nation pursued him vigorously.
Haarms narrowed his choices to Kentucky, Texas Tech and BYU. That the Cougars cracked his top three list shocked a lot of people around the college basketball world.
This was during the pandemic, so no on-campus trips were allowed by the NCAA. All his interactions with the coaching staffs of the various schools were conducted via Zoom meetings.
Ultimately, Haarms selected BYU. It was a big deal. The Cougars don’t win very many recruiting battles against Kentucky, which is Pope’s alma mater.
Haarms’ first trip to Provo was after he had already signed. Why BYU?
“The key to it for me was never seeing BYU as anything lesser. It was placing everything on an equal playing field and then listing off pros and cons,” Haarms recalled. “Every time I thought about it leading up to my commitment — I was down to my final three of Kentucky, Texas Tech and BYU — and every time I even considered another option, it came down to me saying, ‘Yeah, but then I would miss out on playing for coach Pope’ and how excited I was for that and how great of an opportunity it felt like for me.
“I never placed any school on a pedestal above another. I valued them all equally. Every single time, BYU came out on top for me, the place that it would be the best fit,” Haarms added. “When BYU first reached out I was pretty excited to talk to them because of how successful coach Pope had been in his first year. The coaching fit was a great fit for a player like me. It’s a true family atmosphere. That’s something I really like as well.”
Haarms has said he’s happy about his decision to enroll at BYU. “Since I stepped on campus, there hasn’t been a single moment, a single day, of doubt,” he said.
For Barcello, who played last year for the Cougars after transferring from Arizona, representing BYU “means everything to me,” he said. “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.”
Averette has been recruited, and signed, twice by Pope. The first time was as a transfer from Oklahoma State when he joined UVU while Pope was coaching there.
Then last summer, after a season at UVU, he joined Pope at BYU.
“When I first met coach Pope, I couldn’t put it into words the feeling he gave me. Without saying much, he gave me a lot of confidence in myself,” Averette said. “He made me feel like I actually believe in the player that I feel like I am. Since Day 1, that’s been one of the things I’ve noticed about coach Pope. How much confidence he brings out of his guys ... You want to be around a coach like that.”
Tapping into the transfer portal
In the current transfer portal/grad transfer era, coaches that can successfully find the right players in the portal can change the college basketball recruiting game.
Both Pope and assistant coach Chris Burgess have firsthand experience with changing programs as players. Pope started his playing career at Washington before transferring to Kentucky, where he won a national championship. Burgess began his playing career at Duke and finished at Utah.
After losing seven seniors from a team that posted a 24-8 record last season, Pope and his staff scoured the country in search of immediate help, including the transfer portal, to identify players that could integrate relatively seamlessly into the program. Players in the transfer portal took notice of the Cougars’ success in his first season at the helm.
BYU was in the running for another high-profile transfer last spring, Georgetown guard Mac McClung. The Cougars were on McClung’s top seven destinations but he ended up choosing Texas Tech.
“It’s interesting because so many people were inspired by how these (BYU) players performed last year. You’re immediately drawn to it. Then there are some guys that are looking for something different,” Pope 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.”
Of course, BYU fans have high expectations for the basketball program and Pope wholeheartedly harbors similar expectations — if not higher ones. Pope recruits players that are seeking to play for a program that demands a lot from them.
“We want people to expect us to be good. That’s the expectation for ourselves. I hope that we’re always held to a high standard. We’re at an extraordinary university with a storied basketball program. Guys should come here understanding that,” Pope said. “If there’s any school in the country that you should be aware of their standards before you go, it’s BYU. They’re all over the place and they’re the standards we try to strive for and hold ourselves to.”
This year’s Cougars team has a diverse mix of players, including two players from foreign countries — Haarms and Gideon George, a native of Nigeria. George, who was inserted into the starting lineup on Feb. 4, is not member of the church.
BYU also has several players that have served missions, including Connor Harding, Spencer Johnson, Trevin Knell, Richard Harward and Jesse Wade.
Meanwhile, BYU has signed a few players that are currently serving missions, such as Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders and Tanner Toolson in addition to Wasatch Academy’s Fousseyni Traore, a forward hailing from Bamako, Mali, in West Africa.
“You look at our roster, with the missionaries we’ll have coming back over the next couple of years, it’s important to have a one-year or two-year guy just with the continuity we have coming back,” Burgess told the Deseret News last spring. “We like to stay old. It’s a formula that’s worked for us — recruit old, stay old. Fortunately, with missionaries, they’re already old when they get back. BYU has that already built in.”
BYU coaches are aggressive when it comes to the transfer portal while presenting to potential recruits the unique aspects of the school.
“It doesn’t mean that we’re chasing all of those players hard. But we’re doing our homework. We’re trying to see if they’re a fit,” Burgess said. “There are some guys that we’ve missed on and there are some guys that have committed to us and we’ve said no, it’s not the right fit.”
Pope extols BYU basketball’s rich tradition — winning teams, legendary players, a 20,000-seat Marriott Center — and believes the program “can accomplish everything that you dream about” in years to come.
“We’re here to win. That’s why we’re here — to try to win big. Please bring expectations because that’s what we’re expecting of ourselves,” Pope said. “We’re going to have moments when we stumble and moments when things go wrong but it’s not going to be because of expectations. It’s because we didn’t play as well as we meant to. We’re focused on getting better every day and striving to have the best locker room in America and be relentless. These guys are coming here because people think we’re going to be good and they believe that we can have a good program.”
That helps explain how Pope and his staff have been able to attract players from various backgrounds, regardless of religious affiliation, to join them on their journey at BYU.