Mark Pope, BYU Not Forgetting Players Who Laid Foundation For NCAA Opportunity
PROVO, Utah – The last time BYU basketball was in the NCAA Tournament was when Mark Pope was an assistant for the Cougars. Joys and heartbreak of March Madness have not been around the BYU Basketball program in what feels like a lifetime. Six years to be exact. But no one would fault you if you thought the last year was a lifetime.
The pandemic has created a year where many wondered if Selection Sunday would ever come again. It’s officially back, and BYU is headed to the unique NCAA Tournament bubble of Indianapolis with a 6-seed. But don’t think for a second that Mark Pope and his program forget the individuals who put in the work to get BYU to this point.
Last year, Mark Pope inherited a BYU basketball program coming off a 19-win season. There were uncertainty and questions about the program’s future, despite the excitement of new possibilities within the arrival of a new, relentless staff.
The possibilities proved to be better than anyone could have expected for Mark Pope and BYU hoops’ first year. After landing a commitment from Yoeli Childs to return his senior year, Jake Toolson returning to BYU, getting a waiver for Alex Barcello to play immediately, and turning Zac Seljaas and Dalton Nixon into two of the best glue guys you’ll ever find, BYU was riding high last year and was dreaming big.
But we will never how that story was going to end. As the COVID-19 pandemic stripped the NCAA Tournament from everyone, including that nationally-ranked, 24-win Cougars.
Mark Pope thanked the 2020 team before 2021 Selection Sunday
Before landing a six-seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament and enjoying the Selection Sunday festivities, Pope made sure to thank the men of that team.
“Because of what happened last year, we have this incredible sense of urgency to stay healthy and to play well. And I think we also have an unbelievable amount of gratitude for the opportunity we have to do this,” said Mark Pope.
“Right before we met on the court [for Selection Sunday], Alex [Barcello], the staff, and I jumped on a Zoom call with all seven of our seniors from last year. We keep in close touch with them, but I just wanted to hit them up today and recognize that they laid their own foundation for us to have this opportunity this year. And how much a part of this they are. They taught us how to lead, and they taught us how to sacrifice for each other, and they taught us how to compete.”
Without last year’s success, does BYU basketball today have WCC Defensive Player of the Year Matt Haarms? Does Caleb Lohner get a change of heart to play for his childhood team instead of rival Utah? Those are two key starters on a team that’s only two setbacks since February are against the NCAA Tournament’s number one team, Gonzaga.
Last year’s group showed the potential of what BYU basketball can become in this new era under Mark Pope. They set a tone for BYU’s “Best Locker Room in America” mantra that this year’s 20-6 team has bought into completely.
Without Yoeli Childs, Jake Toolson, TJ Haws, and Alex Barcello, it’s hard to imagine the type of success BYU is currently experiencing in its program. You could argue that this should be considered a two-season bid.
To put it into perspective, BYU landing a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament means for Cougar hoops. You have to go back ten years to find another single-digit seeded BYU team, and that squad featured Jimmer Fredette, and they were in the Mountain West Conference. Only five BYU teams, now six with the addition of 2021, can say they were a six-seed or higher in March Madness.
Last year’s squad helped set a tone for what BYU can look and feel like under Mark Pope in the West Coast Conference. Stats guru Ken Pomeroy projected them to be a five-seed in last year’s tournament had it been played.
“This is their chance.”
Pope, who is going to his first NCAA Tournament as a D-1 head coach, can’t help but be excited for the opportunity in front of his team and reflect on what last year’s group accomplished for BYU.
“I’ve been thinking about our senior class from last year a lot,” said Pope on his emotions of going to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach. “I think my emotions are there a lot, and then my emotions are with this team and everything they’ve kind of gone through this year, like to build themselves, you know.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about guys like Alex Barcello who lost his whole team from last year and had to start over, and what an unbelievable job he’s done as a leader. And I thought about Matt Haarms, who put a whole ton of faith in us coming out here. I could just kind of go down the list. Most of my thought has been with these players and the experience they’re having. This is their chance.”
(6) BYU vs. (11) Michigan State/UCLA
Saturday, March 20th, 2021
Tip-Off: 7:40 p.m.
Radio: KSL NewsRadio
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 p.m., KSL Newsradio). Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper and the KSL Sports app.
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