One year ago tonight, Mark Pope stood outside the media room at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas to tape an interview with BYUtv. His Cougars had just been eliminated from the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals by No. 16 Saint Mary’s, 76-69.

The loss brought an end to a disappointing 19-15 season, including a second-straight fifth-place finish in the WCC. The long look on Pope’s face screamed that he didn’t want to be there. Who would? No one likes to be asked questions they don’t have answers for — and he didn’t have answers.

Pope left Las Vegas like most of Mike Tyson’s boxing opponents — physically tired, emotionally bruised, humble, angry, frustrated and unsure of what to do next. His young BYU coaching career was at a crossroads. What had worked during his first two seasons in Provo wasn’t working anymore, and with NIL and the transfer portal threatening old-school thinking, he knew the fix wouldn’t be easy.

Adding to his anxiety, the Cougars were also joining the Big 12, arguably the most competitive basketball league in the country. How could they possibly compete? It was a lot to digest and would upset anyone’s stomach. The onetime medical student also knew that to keep his job, he had to do something different.

Time to change

“Change before you have to,” said the late Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric. The late Wayne D. Dyer, author and motivational speaker, added, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.”

No one likes to change, and they certainly don’t want to hear outside suggestions on how they could do it. Typically, those first responders are hit with resistance and push back. It’s not personal. It’s just the human pride inside each of us playing defense. But, if allowed to fester, it can also become a barrier that prevents us from pulling it off.

Helen Keller said, “A bend in the road is not the end of the road, unless you fail to make the turn.”

Bound and determined to make the turn and get the program back on track, Pope set out to change everything but his hairstyle.

First: He added a fourth assistant coach. Collin Terry brought energy and new ideas into an already solid staff, including Nick Robinson, Khalil Fennel and Cody Fueger.

Second: He changed the way the team addressed its physical and mental health. Pope hired Michael Davie away from the Milwaukee Bucks to be the team’s new director of strength and conditioning and sports science.

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Third: Pope also brought in a team of psychologists he calls the “P-Squad.” The sole purpose of Scott Baldwin, Scott Braithwaite, Michael Larsen and Chad Jensen’s volunteer effort is to help get the Cougars’ minds right, and that includes Pope himself.

“Those guys have changed my life,” Pope said in January on his weekly coaches show on BYUtv. “They have altered the trajectory of BYU basketball.”

Fourth: The coach hired former Cougar Nate Austin as director of basketball operations, replacing Bobby Horodyski, who had been Pope’s right-hand man since he arrived at BYU in 2019.

Fifth: The basketball staff rallied the roster. It had to make sure certain players didn’t leave while surfing the transfer portal to find new additions. The coaches offered visits and opportunities to just about anybody that would look their way. Most went elsewhere. BYU landed potential impact players Dawson Baker from UC Irvine, Aly Khalifa from Charlotte and Ques Glover from Samford/Florida.

Prior to the first public practice, Baker was out with a foot injury, Khalifa was out with a knee issue and Glover was out altogether — transferring to Kansas State after just a few weeks in Provo. Except for Trevin Knell, who was back from a medical redshirt season, the roster looked very similar to the one that bottomed out in Las Vegas six months earlier.

No one ever said change would be easy. Despite the lack of reinforcements, Pope and his staff pressed on.

Sixth: Pope changed how the Cougars play offense and defense. With a team of 3-point shooters, he decided to take aim at their strengths and let them fire away.

“I want us to shoot somewhere around 37 3-pointers a game and if we can make over 35% of them, I think that will put us in a good position,” Pope said during his first media interviews prior to the team’s European trip last August.

The bold and liberating proclamation was music to the ears of senior Jaxson Robinson, who was honored Sunday as the Big 12′s Sixth Man of the Year. Robinson leads the Cougars with 70 3-pointers this season. Also, with Khalifa’s innate passing skills, Pope added the pick-and-roll and backdoor cuts to his 3-point shooting strategy that has often left BYU’s opponents scratching their heads.

Adjusting the sails

The late motivational writer William Arthur Ward didn’t cover basketball, but his philosophy applies to every occupation — “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

Pope adjusted the sails, which has allowed BYU to navigate the high seas in ways no one anticipated, especially his peers in the Big 12, who picked the Cougars to sink in the troubled waters and finish 13th among the 14 teams.

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Freed from past schematic restrictions, the Cougars’ gunslingers responded by leading the Big 12 in scoring. They averaged more points (82.2 to 75.5), more assists (18.7 to 14.7) and shot better at the foul line (73% to 71%) than they did throughout their last year in the WCC.

The rejuvenated offense triggered better defense with a stronger desire to rebound. The Cougars led the conference in total rebounds. Even as they faced much tougher and taller opponents in more challenging venues than the WCC, the Cougars allowed fewer points (69.5 from 69.9) and improved their rebounding edge (+5.5 to +6.7) from a year ago.

Game changing

Instead of finishing fifth in the WCC (19-15, 7-9), this year’s roster (22-9, 10-8) finished fifth in the Big 12, tied with preseason favorite Kansas, which BYU defeated in Lawrence last month 76-68. The victory gave the Cougars a better seed (five) than the Jayhawks (six) for this week’s Big 12 tournament.

Instead of last year’s season-ending NET ranking of 85, which was worst among all the Big 12 teams and behind Utah, Utah State and Utah Valley, BYU is No. 12 and has been in the top 15 the entire season, even hitting No. 1 in early December.

Instead of no postseason, the Cougars are a lock for the coveted NCAA Tournament and projected to have a seeding that will give them a high probability to advance beyond the first round.

Instead of a coach on the brink one year ago tonight, Pope is flying high, and some analysts are even pitching him as a candidate for coach of the year. Pope frequents national radio interviews, talks more openly about his faith and the mission of BYU, and he will arrive in Kansas City with a team capable of winning that has nothing to lose — which makes the Cougars the most dangerous team in the tournament.

The 12-month transformation was long on work and nothing short of fantastic and for that, Pope deserves and gets the credit because had it not worked, he would suffer the blame and feel those same haunting feelings he had last year at the Orleans. He might even be looking for a new job.

Wrote Socrates, “Let him who would move the world first move himself.” Pope moved. He changed how he coaches and by so doing, he restored hope and optimism to BYU basketball. Whether it’s for the long term or just window dressing will be determined in time and by his recruiting, but the old Spanish proverb still rings true: “A wise man changes his mind, a fool never will.”

BYU coach Mark Pope calls out a play during game against Kansas State, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Manhattan, Kan. | Colin E. Braley, Associated Press