In his first two seasons at the helm of BYU basketball, coach Mark Pope has succeeded with two very different kinds of rosters — and two very different styles of play.
Yes, the Cougars (15-5, 6-3) are winning again, just not the same way they did last season.
While last year’s team led the nation in 3-point shooting and posted a 24-8 record, this year’s squad has capitalized on its size and depth.
“Good coaches figure out how best to utilize the talent they have rather than fit their talent into a set system,” said BYU Radio analyst Mark Durrant. “I think coach Pope is doing a good job of identifying strengths and letting the players play.
“A lot of coaches try to put players into a box. Coach Pope is pretty good at letting guys play and letting them get confidence,” he continued. “He builds confidence in his guys and lets them do their thing. He figures out a way to get the best out of them. He’s not married to one particular system.”
In 2019-20, the Cougars, led by Jake Toolson and TJ Haws, shot a nation’s-best 42.3% from 3-point territory. This season, they’re shooting 35.8%, which ranks No. 81 in the country.
“Last year, it was about shooting the 3. You were the best team in the country. You had maybe two of the best ever in BYU history in Jake Toolson and TJ Haws,” Durrant said. “When you’ve got the best 3-point shooting team in the country, you’ve got to take advantage of that. Even when they went inside, it wasn’t to score inside, it was to collapse the defense and kick it out to a 3-point shooter.
“That’s probably how coach Pope would prefer to play — to shoot a lot of 3s because in college basketball it’s such an important shot. Even with this year’s team, you’re winning but it’s harder because you’re getting a lot of 2s and the other teams are getting 3s. So you’re in close games. Last year, it was about getting 3s, getting good looks from 3 and hitting 3s. That’s where their strength was. Even Yoeli (Childs) liked to hit the 3.”
What BYU has lacked in 3-point shooting this season, it compensates with size — including 7-foot-3 Purdue grad transfer Matt Haarms — and depth, despite losing both Gavin Baxter and Wyatt Lowell to season-ending injuries.
Whereas last year’s team had a tighter rotation, and a thinner post presence, it had consistent scorers like Childs, Toolson and Haws. This year, BYU has relied on a number of players to carry the scoring load.
Eight different players have led the Cougars in scoring this season, including Gideon George’s career-high 19 in a win at Portland.
BYU regularly plays 10 or 11 different players in every game and there’s usually not much of a dropoff, if any, when players like 6-11 Richard Harward and Spencer Johnson come off the bench to spell the starters. In fact, the Cougars’ bench often outscores opposing teams’ reserves by a wide margin.
“You’ve seen over and over, where our bench has scored more than our starters,” Pope said. “Our bench has played more than our starters.”
In early February, Pope showed his team’s versatility once again when he shook up his starting lineup, replacing Trevin Knell and Kolby Lee with George and Caleb Lohner. Connor Harding, meanwhile, was a starter for much of the season but he’s been even more effective coming off the bench.
“Everyone brings something different to the table. We have a lot of young guys,” said guard Alex Barcello. “We’re very strong, we’re very athletic. We’re quick. We bring that intensity.”
BYU’s waves of depth can be overwhelming for some opponents.
“BYU plays 10 or 11 guys. Usually if you get to that many guys, that’s the end of the game and you’re up 30. That’s crazy to think that they’re playing significant minutes at critical parts of the game,” Durrant said. “I think that’s a big reason for their success. They’re not making as many 3s but part of the reason they’re successful is that they wear teams down. They’re playing so many guys and they keep beating on you.
“Teams can stay with BYU for a half or 30 minutes,” he continued. “Then how many times this year have we seen in the last 10 minutes BYU run away from people because the other team is beat down because you’ve been able to play 10 guys?”
While the Cougars were limited in the post last year, they boast multiple weapons in the paint this season with Haarms, Harward, Lohner and Lee. Last season, BYU worked from the outside in. This year, with one of the biggest lineups in the nation, it’s an inside-out approach.
BYU’s size and quickness on the perimeter has helped defensively. The Cougars were No. 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency a year ago, compared to No, 34 this season, according to kenpom.com. And it has helped in terms of rebounding as well — BYU ranks No. 25 nationally in rebound margin.
Meanwhile, the Cougars were No. 7 in adjusted offensive efficiency in 2019-20 and they rank No. 48 this season.
“Coach Pope made adjustments necessary not to be so reliant on the 3 this year,” Durrant said. “When Haarms is in, it takes away the paint, unless he’s out chasing a five that can shoot the 3. You’re forcing teams to shoot. Then you have the size to rebound. Teams are having to shoot tougher shots. Caleb Lohner could end up being the best rebounder in BYU history. He’s a vacuum. He’s strong and he goes and gets it. And Haarms with his size. George, Trevin and Spencer can get rebounds.
“Last year, it was Yoeli getting rebounds. Now, it’s four or five guys every possession, you’re limiting second-chance opportunities for other teams. BYU was pretty miserable at that the last few years. Now they always get more second-chance points. Size helps. But then you’ve got to have guys that will go get it. I challenge you to find a more aggressive rebounder than Harward and Lohner anywhere. They’re animals going after the basketball. If you’re limiting teams to one shot and the shot is tough because they have to shoot over a guy like Haarms, that’s a good formula.”
At the same time, size can be a challenge, depending on matchups.
“When you’re able to put four guys on the floor that are that big, strong and athletic, and a rim-protector like Haarms, teams are going to be able to shoot really well to be in the game,” Durrant said. “They have struggles against certain teams because when you’re that big and you play a team like Pepperdine or Pacific that has a four or five man that shoots the 3 well, then Haarms got to chase a guy around the 3-point line. That’s hard and you see how BYU’s struggled with that at times. Pacific and Pepperdine — their outside players are the guys that drive to the basket and their inside players were out on the perimeter. That’s hard for a team that’s big to do that.”
While this Cougars team isn’t nearly as efficient from 3-point range as last year — when BYU knocked down 332 from deep — it has enjoyed some impressive 3-point shooting games.
The Cougars drilled 18 3s against Westminster and 15 at Portland. Guard Brandon Averette has hit some timely 3-pointers this season, including his rainbow 3 with 52 seconds remaining that helped BYU upset San Diego State.
Before the season tipped off, Pope was asked if the Cougars were capable of leading the nation in 3-point shooting again.
“I don’t know if we’re going to be the best 3-point shooting team in America, but I do know that the shots we’ll earn for each other and I do know how we’ll approach those shots and I do know how we commit to those shots. That’s actually going to be good enough for us,” he said. “We shot 42.2% from the 3-point line last year, 3% higher than any team in the country. I don’t know if that’s reproducible.
“But I do know that our approach will stay the same and that it will bear great fruit, whether that’s the best 3-point shooting team in the country, or the 20th-best or the 50th-best 3-point shooting team we’ll still be proficient in that area because we spend so much time on it and we’re so dedicated to it.”
One of the characteristics these two BYU teams have in common is senior leadership. The Cougars had seven seniors a year ago. This year, it’s Barcello, Haarms and Averette leading the way. They combined to score 60 points in a double-overtime win over Pacific on Jan. 30.
The way Barcello sees it, 3-point shooting is only one element for this team to win games.
“Shots are going to go in, they’re not going to go in. Whatever. At the end of the day, what can you do to help the team win?” he said. “Because it’s not going to be determined on whether you hit shots in the game. It’s going to be determined by the defense that you play and the leadership you bring to the table.”