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Despite disappointing ending in NCAA Tournament, BYU basketball exceeded all expectations this season

By landing transfers like Matt Haarms and Brandon Averette and seeing Alex Barcello develop from role player to star and team leader, the Cougars earned a No. 23 final ranking, received a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and posted a 20-7 record — all amid a pandemic

BYU players surround coach Mark Pope during a timeout. The Cougars were reportedly invited to play in the 2022 Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament.
BYU coach Mark Pope, center, is surrounded by his players during a timeout in the Cougars’ 73-62 loss to UCLA in the NCAA Tournament first round at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Saturday, March 20, 2021.
BYU photo

INDIANAPOLIS — Not long after the final buzzer sounded late Saturday night, an emotional BYU senior Brandon Averette walked off the court at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse with his face buried in his jersey.

The Cougars had just suffered a stinging 73-62 loss to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Moments later, during the postgame Zoom press conference, tears welled up in the eyes of coach Mark Pope and senior Matt Haarms as they answered questions from the media.

This wasn’t the way BYU thought the season would end.

“It’s a lot of feelings going through my mind right now. That was my college career,” said Haarms, who returned this week to the state of Indiana, where he played his first three years of college basketball before transferring from Purdue. “Just grateful for the opportunity I got here at BYU. Grateful for the season we’ve had.”

Pope acknowledged the pain his team was feeling.

“These guys, they live to respond to adversity. They’re experts at getting back up off the mat and moving on and making great things happen,” he said. “And I know that this locker room will do that and I know these young men are able to do that. But there’s going to be some mourning and grieving that goes on. And we’ll do that together just like we competed and won games together this year.”

A year ago, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic and the overachieving Cougars, projected as a single-digit seed and having ended up with a final No. 18 ranking, were denied a chance to play in the Big Dance, many wondered how long it would take Pope and his staff to build another tournament-worthy team.

Consider that BYU lost seven seniors, including stars Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson, and 70% of its scoring production, in 2020.

But Pope rebuilt the team and created another group of overachievers that exceeded all expectations in 2020-21.

By landing transfers like Haarms and Averette and seeing Alex Barcello develop from role player to star and team leader, the Cougars earned a No. 23 final ranking, received a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and posted a 20-7 record — all amid a pandemic.

Nobody saw that coming.

Even before the season tipped off last November, many thought this BYU team would be lucky to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Instead, the Cougars were solidly in the field of 68 by late December or early January thanks in part to impressive road wins over San Diego State and Utah State. They solidified themselves in the top 30 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Saturday night, Pope tried to put his team’s achievements in perspective.

“They’re a Top 25 team. They’re metrically astounding, probably made the biggest jump in their ranking in the preseason to the end of the season as any team in the country,” he said. “And they won huge game after huge game after huge game. They came every single night and every single day in practice ready to go. They took an eclectic collection of guys from all over, with all different backgrounds, they came together and forged a special team. So, so many accomplishments.”

Looking ahead to next season, Pope will once again try to replace a special group of seniors — Barcello, Haarms and Averette — and he’ll welcome back a bunch of promising players like Caleb Lohner, Gideon George, Trevin Knell, Richard Harward and Spencer Johnson, who each just completed their first seasons at BYU. And Pope will probably be aggressive again with the transfer portal.

But in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s setback to the Bruins, it was difficult for Pope to look ahead too far.

“We’re so grateful for the opportunity we have to be here for this tournament. And personally I’m so humbled and grateful that I get to be in that locker room with those guys. They’re extraordinary young men,” he said. “And down the line they all sacrificed so much for each other. And they fought really hard to try and learn how to love each other. We’ll piece away the basketball stuff. It’s just hard to do that right now with what I got in that locker room right now, a bunch of dudes that are brokenhearted and I think as much as anything, just devastated that they don’t get to play together again. You know, when you forge a bond that these guys worked so hard. It doesn’t come by accident, when you work as hard as these guys do to forge the bond that they have with one another, it is devastating to know that you’re not going to be in a locker room together again in the same forum.”

For BYU, it’s time to look ahead as well as appreciate a season filled with unexpected success.

“This team accomplished incredible things,” Pope said. “They’re walking out of this season with a pocketful of records and incredible accomplishments and huge contributions to BYU basketball, to the history of BYU basketball, some great things. But at the end of the day all that stuff is fine, but they got something that’s way deeper and way more important than any of those things.”

This is what Pope does. He strives to build “the best locker room in America.” And that process has already begun going into the 2021-22 season.

Pope has set a standard at BYU. He’s laid a foundation. He’s put in place expectations. Moving forward, observers probably won’t doubt what he and his staff can do.