BYU basketball coach Mark Pope praised seniors Jaxson Robinson and Spencer Johnson extensively Saturday night after the Cougars downed Oklahoma State 85-71 in the regular-season finale to earn the No. 5 seed for this week’s Big 12 conference tournament at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City.

And for good reason. The duo combined for 31 points, 15 rebounds and six assists as the Cougars won their sixth-straight home game.

Then the players rightfully said that Pope deserves a lot of credit himself.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that Pope should have finished in the top three for the Big 12 Coach of the Year award, which was given to Houston’s Kelvin Sampson Sunday night.

The Cougars’ head coach since 2019 has done a remarkable job getting BYU ready to compete in the Big 12, when many believed it would struggle after going 7-9 in the West Coast Conference last year.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Picked 13th in the 14-team league last October, BYU was easily the biggest climber, making the eight-spot jump to fifth. The next two biggest movers, both at plus-five, were Iowa State (picked seventh, finished second) and Texas Tech (picked eighth, finished tied for third with Baylor).

The Big 12 tournament begins Tuesday with a pair of first-round games, No. 13 Oklahoma State vs. No. 12 Central Florida and No. 14 West Virginia vs. No. 11 Cincinnati.

That BYU (10-8, 22-9) isn’t in one of those games is a testament to not only the work of Pope, but his entire staff, and, of course, the players. Don’t forget that BYU dropped its first two league contests, at home to Cincinnati and on the road at Baylor, and fell behind UCF in Orlando in Game 3 before rallying to win in the second half.

That 12-1 nonconference record, built against a weak schedule, by design, was looking a bit suspect. But Pope and his crew recovered.

The turnaround has been remarkable.

“I would say together (is the word that describes the 2023-24 Cougars),” said Johnson. “I have never been around a team that is been this together, this united this involved in each other’s lives and business and all the jokes, and just good moments and memories that we have together.”

Robinson said relentless is the word that best describes the team, another testament to the staff’s ability to keep them resilient when the storms came, they weren’t able to close out big leads on the road, and doubters sprang up across the country as a few losses to inferior opponents popped up.

“I would probably say relentless, just because I know there have been a lot of ups and downs. But something that coach and Spencer always reiterate with our team is just how we always just come back the next day, regardless of what happened the day before,” Robinson said. “Obviously, it has paid off huge this season.”

BYU will open the second round on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m. MST on ESPN2 against the winner of Tuesday’s OSU-UCF game. It will be another huge challenge in a season full of them.

If it is UCF, BYU will be trying to beat a team for the third time this season, which is never easy. The Knights gave No. 1 Houston a good test Wednesday in Orlando before falling 67-59, then upset TCU 79-77 in Fort Worth on Saturday. Coach Johnny Dawkins has his team peaking at the right time.

If it is OSU, BYU will face a team that beat the Cougars 93-83 on Feb. 17 in Stillwater and put up a pretty good fight Saturday in Provo. The Cougars led by 25 in the second half, but as most teams have been able to do against BYU this year, the Cowboys rallied back, gaining confidence in case there is a rematch in Kansas City.

Javon Small scored a career-high 34 points and presents matchup problems for BYU.

If BYU wins Wednesday, it would face No. 4 seed Texas Tech at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday in a quarterfinal matchup. The Red Raiders overcame a 17-point deficit in Lubbock and rolled past the Cougars 85-78 on Jan. 20.

Houston is also on BYU’s side of the bracket.

Cougars on the air

Big 12 Tournament second-round game

UCF or Oklahoma State

vs. No. 20 BYU (10-8, 22-9)

Wednesday, 10:30 a.m. MDT

T-Mobile Center, Kansas City


Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

In truth, BYU might have been better off getting the No. 6 seed, which Kansas got, because the Jayhawks’ path to Saturday’s championship game doesn’t go through Houston or Texas Tech, which could be the two hottest teams in the tournament.

Pope said that because there are no easy games in the Big 12, BYU’s seeding, and draw, in its first Big 12 tournament really doesn’t matter.

“That’s the great thing about the Big 12, is that everyone is great. It is just the truth. We kinda lost ourselves for a few minutes the last couple of days trying to think about seeding and who we play,” Pope said. “Every scenario you chalk up, you are like, ‘well, they are great, and they are great, and they are great, and they are great.’

And so it is actually kind of therapeutic. You don’t need to worry about it. We just know that on Wednesday we are going to play a great team. And if we win then we are going to play a great team on Thursday. And that is kind of the beauty of this league,” he concluded.