If you are one of those BYU fans who’s tired of getting teased by Cougar athletic programs that are not cross-country or track and field? To be taken to the brink of hope only to be let down? Mark Pope wants to change that Saturday night in Indianapolis in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against UCLA.
You know, the BYU dreads. Losing to Coastal Carolina when knocking on the top 10 CFP rankings, a volleyball skid in the finals, nine straight losses to Utah in football, WCC basketball tournaments that end in last-second losses (Saint Marys 2020), back-handed slapdowns by Gonzaga in Las Vegas.
List your heartbreak, it’s found at the BYU crossroads of Big Things Street and Disappointment Avenue.
Pope has other ideas.
He’s determined to deliver some wins and go find another ending.
He’s got his “Best Locker Room” in the country act on the road in the big one that counts and he’s preaching hard.
While his team succumbed last year in a last-gasp shot by Saint Mary’s in the WCC semifinals in Las Vegas, he dodged the bullet in an overtime win over Pepperdine at the WCC tourney a week ago.
Now, it is taking on a limping No. 11 seed UCLA that zipped past No. 11 Michigan State Thursday night.
And Pope teased this on SiriusXM Radio’s “Mad Dog Sports” this past week with the preamble:
“We are one of those teams where we wish there were three more months in the season because we are getting better.”
In Pope’s defense of his enthusiasm and excitement, he is right.
He’s got 7-foot-3 center Matt Harrms playing more aggressively, shooting .548 with 47 blocks.
He’s witnessed the “comfort” level of freshman rebound sensation Caleb Lohner elevate to another level, including his 3-point shooting acumen and seven boards a game.
He’s excited about senior point guard Alex Barcello finding his 3-point range again, almost at the level seen in preseason at .486 (51 of 105).
Sharpshooter Trevin Knell has produced, shooting .457 from 3 (43 of 94).
Gideon George has proved a productive outside threat, rebounder and on-ball defender.
Brandon Averette has been an erratic at times but proven thumb-in-the dyke player who has won games with key buckets in crunch time.
Richard Harward can produce, rebound, absorb fouls and get defenders in foul trouble with his inside strongman play.
The list could be added upon. Pope’s guys are stepping up. His team is progressing, peaking at the right time. The Cougars are on a 7-2 run with the two losses coming at the hands of No. 1 seed Gonzaga.
BYU is 5-2 all-time when given an NCAA seed of seven or better and this year they’re assigned a No. 6 platform, albeit in a situation where the tournament gods love to place a target on their backs because of no Sunday play — a scheduling pain.
Let conspiracy theorists rise up — it is better for the tournament committee to have BYU lose as soon as possible. There, it’s on the table.
But Pope has other plans.
Here is a list of challenges his team must overcome against UCLA on Saturday night:
- The Cougars have to dominate the boards — a weakness the Bruins showed against Michigan State.
- Haarms and Harward have to protect the rim and control the paint with George.
- Barcello, Averette and Knell must combine for 7 to 9 3-pointers.
- BYU must break down attempts to disrupt offensive sets (Pepperdine, Gonzaga) with extended pressure on guards.
- Free-throw makes are crucial.
- No slow, sloppy starts.
- Avoid turnovers, especially the dumb ones.
It’s all on Pope’s whiteboard.
BYU is a better team than UCLA with more depth, more versatility in its lineup. The Bruins lost two of their best players early in the season (Chris Smith, Jalen Hill) and their leading scorer, Johnny Juzang suffered a right ankle sprain with 44 seconds left in the overtime win over Michigan State.
Juzang’s recovery is a big key for the Bruins. He had 23 points with 3 of 9 makes from distance and four rebounds in that play-in win over the Spartans.
If Pope’s team is playing better and wants to add three more months to the season, that’s the right attitude to project.
Now, prove it.