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BYU became a lifesaver for Alex Barcello, but he returned the favor

Where would BYU be without the talented guard? It would be a different team without him

Brigham Young Cougars guard Alex Barcello (13) moves with the ball during a game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in Provo.
BYU guard Alex Barcello drives during a West Coast Conference basketball game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels in Provo on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021.
Annie Barker, Deseret News

Alex Barcello is BYU’s engine, but there was a time two years ago he found himself in a heap of emotional turmoil.

Barcello is a tremendous leader, an energized piston in Mark Pope’s lineup. He is the glue that holds the Cougars together in crunch time, beating the shot clock with drives, making shots and key passes, quarterbacking the offense, getting teammates into sets, resets and flow.

He’s like a coach on the court for BYU’s staff.

His pull-up midrange jumper is as close to Tyler Haws as the Cougars have seen since that record scorer graduated.

Opponents have AB well scouted. They’re crowding and bumping him, cutting off his favored right hand dribble loop around a high screen. They double him early in a play trying to disrupt his rhythm.

All of Barcello’s game will be on display next Monday when the Cougars open play in the West Coast Conference Tournament at The Orleans in Las Vegas. The affair will be a COVID-19-protected arena without fans and socially distanced contact. It will be a mausoleum-like experience where No. 1 seed Gonzaga will be equally devoid of fans.

All of what Barcello has become to BYU basketball is even more impressive when you consider he was lower than desert sand during his sophomore year at Arizona. He was frustrated, disappointed, almost inconsolable over his role, his playing time and development opportunities.

In an outstanding “Deep Blue” piece by BYUtv, which aired a week ago, Barcello’s emotional struggle prior to coming to Provo described him as “broken.”

That he’ll be a star in Las Vegas next week, unbroken, is remarkable.

Back in 2019 Barcello called his mother at work. He was in despair. Shelli is always excited to see one of her children call to check in, but this time she immediately could tell by her son’s voice that he was struggling big-time and she needed to go home and see him.

Alex sounded like he just got out of bed, not his regular self. Shelli Barcello said that voice did not sound like her son. “He sounded broken and scared.”

Pope called Barcello’s experience at his former school very difficult. “He kind of lost some of his love of the game, spent a lot of time questioning his own ability, his own skill, and his own future, and it left him on really uncertain waters,” Pope said in the BYUtv piece.

Barcello spent that summer up and down, like on a roller coaster, searching for a new home. He narrowed his answers down to Butler and BYU, making a list of pros and cons. He decided upon BYU with support from his family and girlfriend Zoe and decided to commit to Pope.

In the ensuing months, Barcello’s life changed. He found a foothold, a higher purpose, a new role. At the center of that were open arms directed specifically for him, a boatload of love, appreciation and a higher sense of self-esteem.

“Belief is everything,” explained Barcello. “Like, when you have people that you know stand for you and have your back through thick and thin, no matter what you’re going through, it speaks tremendously. And I think that’s what I had when I came here.”

Shelli Barcello put it this way: “If somebody believes in you, you would run through walls for that person. You just needed them to believe in you.”

The Barcellos found that safety net in Pope, his staff, teammates and the campus community.

“God always has a plan,” Barcello explained. “Never in a million years would I have expected to be here at BYU, but you know I’m here and I’m loving it. I’ve loved every step of the way through thick and thin like I’ll go to war for this team. I’ll go to war for coach Pope just because of the belief that he has in me.”

Barcello’s impact at BYU this season is indisputable. Imagine what the team would be without his skills. It would not be a pretty record.

Barcello’s dribbling abilities, his handles as they call it, are impressive. His mastery of this seemingly simple skill is remarkable and that’s why he signed with Pac-12 powerhouse Arizona out of high school; he had great handles.

The senior from Corona del Sol High in Chandler, Arizona, is gritty and intense. He plays hard.

Barcello has played in all 24 of BYU’s games and leads the team in minutes played (31.3 average), scoring (15.7) and has never fouled out despite being the only Cougar playing more than 30 minutes a game. He shoots .533 from the field, .489 from distance and .841 from the line. His 7-of-7 from 3 outing in a win over San Francisco set a BYU record. He’s third in the league in assists and sixth in 3-point shooting.

“Alex is the undisputed leader of this team,” said Pope on the “Deep Blue” segment. “And he works at it every single day. He is oozing with swag and confidence. Every single day he knows who he is and he knows what he can do in no uncertain terms.

“It’s amazing to see the growth that he’s made with his voice, with his challenging of his teammates, with his demands of his teammates. He thinks about, ‘How can I help the individuals on this team?’ every single day. He is a born leader that is now a work in progress of rebirth as a leader, and it makes your job as a head coach so easy, when you have guys that care about leading a team that much.”

The Pope/Barcello roles cast in this video piece are very strong and a kind of poster campaign for what Pope has achieved in two seasons at BYU with his current 43-13 record and second-straight No. 2 seed at the league tournament, kind of supplanting Saint Mary’s as the expected runner-up to top-ranked Gonzaga in Vegas.

Many times parents of athletes have a love/hate relationship with coaches, depending on playing time. So many moms and dads rejoice or suffer through seasons seeing their kids’ hard work and pay off or fall short, but the toughest is to see little or no playing time.

This is what makes the words of Shelli Barcello stick so effectively in this interview.

This was a mother who saw her talented son, who once scored more than 50 points in a high school game, start to unravel in Tucson with his college experience. Mothers know the depth of hurt and discouragement because it’s their nature to do everything to fix it and overcome.

“Coach Pope fixed my son,” said Shelli. “He was so broken. It was so devastating as a mom to see her son come before her like that, and everything he did, every step he took, all the words he spoke, all the actions he took, bringing him into a safe spot around a wonderful community, a wonderful university, wonderful teammates, and leading …, (it) was amazing.”

With a voice trembling with emotion, Shelli concluded about Pope:

“I will never ever be able to thank him enough because he saved my child.”

Then, turning to Alex in that moment, she said, “And you’re laughing and smiling. And you’re joyful again. And that’s huge for a mom.”