BYU’s Path To Top 25 Ranking Was Difficult, But Rewarding
PROVO, Utah – BYU basketball’s path to being among the best teams in college hoops this season has not come easy.
This week is the first time in nine years that BYU (21-7) is ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll. The Cougars check in at No. 23.
It’s an incredible accomplishment for a program that less than one year ago had only 19 wins, saw arguably the best head coach in program history retire, and NCAA sanctions rocked the university with wins being vacated.
How did BYU basketball navigate all the uncertainty to be in a position for a potential bracket busting run in March? Let’s look back on how the Cougar Cagers got here.
Mark Pope brings a “relentless” attitude
After Dave Rose retired, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding BYU basketball. Who was going to fill the shoes left by Dave Rose? Despite having a lot of interest from quality head coaching candidates, BYU’s athletic director Tom Holmoe and associate A.D. Brian Santiago wanted Utah Valley University head coach and former BYU assistant Mark Pope.
Along with BYU brass, prominent boosters such as Ryan Smith of Qualtrics fame were also big advocates for Pope. Pope turned down a head coaching offer from UNLV and interest from the likes of Cal and Nevada to settle in on BYU.
When Pope was hired, he set the tone for BYU basketball to have a renewed 24/7, relentless approach to give a much-needed jolt of energy to a program needing some positive news.
Yoeli Childs and Jake Toolson returned to Provo
When Pope and his staff were hired, no one around BYU hoops expected Yoeli Childs to return for his senior season. But Dave Rose spoke with Pope at the Final Four last April that there could be a chance for the talented big man to come back. Pope and assistant coach Chris Burgess began the recruiting and Childs shocked many by announcing he would come back for one more year.
Along with Childs, Utah Valley University transfer Jake Toolson came full circle in his collegiate career by returning to BYU, the school he signed with out of high school. Toolson turned down offers from the likes of Duke and Virginia to continue his career with head coach Mark Pope.
Former BYU guard Nick Emery was part of Pope’s program until he decided to retire from the game of basketball. Pope acknowledged last June that when he was hired, Emery looked at Pope “sideways.” Emery’s retirement opened a scholarship for Arizona Wildcats transfer Alex Barcello to join the program shortly after.
Months later, Emery sent tweets that have since been deleted saying to a BYU recruit that Mark Pope and his staff were “super sketchy.” The drama that surrounded Emery was a cloud that BYU found a way to move forward from with relative ease.
Childs’ egregious suspension handed down by the NCAA
The victory of having Yoeli Childs return for his senior season was then met with frustration as Childs was suspended by the NCAA for nine games due to not filing the proper paperwork to the NCAA before hiring an agent. The NCAA originally was set on suspending Childs for the entire 2019-20 season but reduced the suspension down to nine games.
Childs missed opportunities to play in the Maui Invitational in his final year at BYU. In games that Childs has been able to play in, BYU is 13-2 this season.
Difficult non-conference schedule
Pope inherited a schedule left by Dave Rose that featured one of the toughest non-conference slates in the country. Games against San Diego State, Houston, Utah State, and three matchups in the Maui Invitational helped prepare BYU to become the resilient team that they have shown to be this season.
BYU finished the non-conference portion of their schedule with an 11-4 record and it was ranked as the 21st toughest out of league schedule in the country by the Ken Pomeroy ratings.
Finding ways to win despite numerous injuries
BYU has been snakebit with injuries this season. The injuries started during BYU’s trip to Italy where Zac Seljaas suffered a foot injury that prevented him from participating in training camp. Then TJ Haws had a minor knee surgery that kept him sidelined. A total of eight players have had injuries this season including Gavin Baxter who’s missed 25 games due to a shoulder and Yoeli Childs with a finger injury.
Jake Toolson continues to play through a severe ankle sprain he suffered earlier this month against Saint Mary’s.
Yet, despite all of the injuries, BYU is 21-7 and they still have yet to click on all cylinders
Looking to make noise in the NCAA Tournament
Now with the Top 25 ranking next to their name and plenty of basketball still in front of them, bigger challenges remain. Can BYU defeat No. 2 Gonzaga this Saturday? Or better yet, can BYU take down the Zags in the West Coast Conference Tournament down in Las Vegas next month? Also, will BYU find a way to make a run in the NCAA Tournament?
Being the number one three-point shooting team in America and having three stars in Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson, and TJ Haws, the Cougars have been battle-tested and are ready for more to close out the first year of the Mark Pope era in Provo.
Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12-3 pm) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.