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With 2021 season in the books, it’s little secret what Mark Pope will focus on next

Solving the point guard mystery will be among top priorities for BYU coach moving forward

SHARE With 2021 season in the books, it’s little secret what Mark Pope will focus on next
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope claps and cheers for his team on the sideline of the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.

BYU head coach Mark Pope claps and cheers for his team as BYU and Pepperdine play in semifinal West Coast Conference tournament basketball action at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas on Monday, March 8, 2021. BYU won 82-77 in overtime.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

BYU became part of the NCAA Tournament mayhem last week — just one of many victims sent home in quick order in what many say is the craziest Big Dance ever.

Now, Mark Pope is tasked with picking up the pieces and forging ahead.

He just got through redesigning a roster dominated by seniors when TJ Haws, Yoeli Childs and Jake Toolson left. Now he’s creating a future as Matt Haarms, Alex Barcello and Brandon Averette are slated to depart.

Barring any sudden announcement of additional eligibility due to COVID-19, those seniors should move on.

Then there’s the fun chatter.

There’s talk that rival Utah’s coaching search could impact BYU, even without making a pitch or courting Mark Pope to move up the freeway for a Pac-12 job. Although the Utes opening and Pope speculation has no real traction we can find, it isn’t without Twitter having a little fun at the expense of BYU fans.

A Utah State fan tweeted out on Monday that Utah and Pope agreed to a five-year contract, according to sources, and an announcement is expected soon.

Righhhht.

Other scenarios, total speculation at this point, would involve Utah moving Utah State coach Craig Smith up the search list if Knicks assistant Johnnie Bryant or Utah Jazz assistant Alex Jensen don’t pan out. A potential hire of Smith would open the door for BYU assistants Chris Burgess or Cody Fueger to apply for the Aggies job.

Another twist would be Utah boosters, key in funding the next hire to replace Larry Krystkowiak and paying for his nearly $7 million buyout, hiring away one or two of Pope’s assistants, Fueger or Burgess. Both are former Utes.

Thing is, when head coaches are hired, they primarily bring staff with them as a package, not just for loyalty but trust, continuity and conformity in building a new regime.

All this staff chatter aside, there’s other work to be done by Pope.

BYU needs to sign commit Atiki Ally Atiki, the 6-foot-11 Tanzanian at London Academy in Toronto.

The window for signing Division I basketball players begins April 15 and ends Aug. 1.

Pope’s staff should check in on signeeFousseyni Traore, a 6-7, 235-pound wingman from No. 5-ranked Wasatch Academy when they play as the No. 5 seed in the Geico High School Basketball National Championship March 31-April 3 in the Sunset Credit Union Arena in Fort Meyers, Florida.

Wasatch Academy will play April 1 at 6 p.m. against AZ Compass Prep, which features former Creighton commit TyTy Washington, one of the most sought-after guards in the country.

Wasatch coach Paul Peterson believes the Tigers have a chance to make some noise in Florida after managing a COVID-19 season with 18 wins. He says Traore has had to overcome some challenges this year, but they made him better.

“Like many of our guys, they came back from the offseason overweight because they hadn’t played a lot in the summer. Then he broke his right hand in late October and didn’t come back until Nov. 8. That opened the door for him to work on his shooting and footwork and he ended up losing 22 pounds in six weeks. He turned it into a plus for his senior year.”

Peterson said Traore worked hard developing his shots from his left hand. He worked extensively with former Pope graduate assistant Quinn Nielson (UVU), now a Wasatch assistant. “He worked on what they call at BYU the ‘quicks’ shot and he got that down pretty good.”

Peterson said Traore can run the floor and dribble, kind of like Charles Barkley and he’s got what the 76ers call the Euro step. “He’s got the whole package. He can do it all.”

Dave Evans, who coached Traore before leaving Wasatch Academy, called Traore a very likable personality, “about as good a kid as you’re going to meet.”

Traore is a wing player who is built kind of like Yoeli Childs, not a tall player but explosive athleticism.

“He was on a really good team that got overshadowed last year (with Caleb Lohner), but he had a very good season and was a huge part of it. He had so many games where he had a double-double,” said Evans.

“He’s not exceptionally tall, but he’s really an efficient scorer and he’s got those really long arms that just dunked everything. Last year (2020), he shot over 70% from the field. He’s going to rebound at a high level.”

Often asked why players go to a prep school like Wasatch Academy, Evans said many players can progress just fine at a regular high school but he loves that at a prep academy like Wasatch the players can play intense ball at a high level against the best players in the country. “It’s like preparing you for your first year of college so hopefully you can get some minutes that first year.”

BYU also signed guard Richie Saunders from Lohner’s same graduating class at Wasatch and he is currently halfway through a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Madagascar. 

“I think Richie will be really ready to go when he shows up. Fouss has been playing against really level guys for three years and he’s going to be really really good.”

Another guard on that 2020 team, Indiana freshman Mike Saunders Jr., known for his speed and athleticism, announced last week he will put his name in the transfer portal.

If Barcello and Averette elect to pass on extra eligibility, the Cougars need a real weapon at point guard. The departure of Haws in 2020 showed just how crucial that is to Pope’s offensive sets that rely on strong guard play and passing acumen.

Pope’s point guard question should loom as the biggest challenge of his day.