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‘We’re not letting COVID take another tournament away from us’: BYU taking every precaution to keep team safe

While BYU had several games either postponed or cancelled, it never had any COVID-19 issues within the program. The Cougars are the only West Coast Conference team without a COVID-19 pause this season.

The Brigham Young Cougars huddle during a game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021. 
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Somehow, with a healthy mix of good fortune and painstaking safety precautions, the BYU basketball program played 24 games in the most unique of seasons, in the middle of a pandemic.

With a 65-51 victory over Saint Mary’s Saturday on Senior Night, the Cougars completed a taxing, 24-game regular season campaign.

While BYU had several games either postponed or cancelled, it never had any COVID-19 issues within the program. In fact, the Cougars are the only West Coast Conference team without a COVID-19 pause this season. (The only other one, Portland, went on COVID-19 pause this past week.)

While that is a remarkable achievement, now that the regular season is over the stakes for staying that way are even higher.

BYU (19-5), the No. 2 seed in the upcoming West Coast Conference Tournament, doesn’t play again until March 8 in the semifinals.

Between now and then, it’s crucial that the team remain healthy.

Asked about this tenuous situation last Thursday, coach Mark Pope said the reason why his team has avoided any COVID-19 pauses on its end this season is because “my guys have no social life whatsoever. They’re pretty boring dudes that like to hoop and go to school. We don’t really get exposed.” He added that “we’ve been really fortunate.”

Then, on cue, Pope knocked on wood before he continued.

“We’re not letting COVID take another tournament away from us. It can’t happen. As the season’s gone on, we’ve gotten increasingly cautious,” he said. “We’ll continue to be increasingly cautious. We’re super prayerful and hopeful that that doesn’t happen because these guys have worked really hard and have sacrificed an awful lot for each other. So we’re going to continue to be careful.”

Pope added Saturday night that he’s worried enough about COVID-19 issues that he may not sleep much this week.

According to the NCAA’s NET rankings and bracketologists, the Cougars are a lock to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in two weeks on Selection Sunday. BYU was going to be a single-digit seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament before it was cancelled due to the pandemic.

This season, the NCAA has mandated that teams participating in the NCAA Tournament — to be held entirely in the state of Indiana — must have seven consecutive days of negative PCR tests before starting practice in the Hoosier State.

But first, BYU needs to get through the WCC Tournament, which tips off Thursday at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

“We’re going to proceed forward. We’re going to be hyper cautious,” Pope said. “I actually have this helmet, you look like a martian, it’s got its own filters and ventilator and fans inside … I’m thinking about getting them all for the team and making the guys wear them. We have to take every precaution.”

On Monday, Pope said, he is going to meet with his team “and have a long discussion about how important this is. After Monday, it becomes super complicated if anyone test positive for COVID. Monday is the beginning of a significant window for us.”

Pope joked that he’d be fine “shipping these guys off into federal prison isolation cells or whatever.”

At least we think he was joking.

“We’ve got to find some way to keep them safe,” Pope added. “I know these guys want it just as bad as we all do. So they’re going to be really careful and we’re going to be really prayerful.”

BYU players understand what’s on the line.

Senior guard Brandon Averette said now’s not the time to let up on precautions though the the regular season is done.

“This is literally what we’ve been working the whole season for. This is why we’ve been winning these tough games because we knew we wanted to be in March Madness at the end of the season and be able to have that opportunity,” Averette said. “We understand the seriousness … we understand that at this point, if anybody catches COVID, that could be our season, you know? It’s that serious at this point. We’re definitely taking the right precautions. We’re going to continue to do that.”

Senior guard Alex Barcello said that before the season, his team set very specific goals — to win as many games as possible, win a conference championship and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

“The guys have really taken that upon themselves and taken it upon us as a whole to be mature on and off the court. When we’re not here at practice, or we’re not going to class, we just go to our houses,” he said. “For the most part, we’re pretty locked down. That wasn’t something that came from the coaches. It came from us and the meetings that we had as a whole, all the guys, and what we wanted out of this year.”

The Cougars have had to make sacrifices in their personal lives in order to stay virus-free.

“It attests to the maturity and how seriously we took this season,” Averette said. “We knew the different precautions we might have to take and that we might not be able to hang out like we normally do with our friends. We just stayed locked in and stayed locked in on what we needed to do to play games.”

Barcello is grateful that BYU was able to play 24 games when many teams around the country weren’t able to play nearly as many.

“To us seniors, it means everything because it’s our last year. I really give credit to our coaching staff with how hard they worked,” he said. “Every game that got postponed, or cancelled, they were calling 30 to 40 different teams throughout the country, seeing if we could get a game in a day or two. They believe in us so much that they don’t care who we play. We just want to play games. We want to play games and we want go against the best and see what we’re made of. That’s why we played 20-plus games this season.”

Pope calls getting in 24 games in a season like this “a miracle.”

“We feel so fortunate and so blessed. We wrap our whole life up into this team and these games. This is our life,” he said. “For us to have had the hit we had last year at the end of the season, where we didn’t get to play and not being sure if we’d get to play. Things looked really bleak in the fall … we’ve been really blessed, haven’t we? I bet Vegas was putting the odds pretty low that we’d get 24 games in and we got them. I’m so grateful for that because through the course of those 24 games, we got to watch these young men really grow.”

And now, the task for Pope is to continue keeping his players healthy so they can continue to grow, play games — and take their shot in the NCAA Tournament.