BYU Embarks On Another ‘Year One’ Under Mark Pope As Big 12 Looms
PROVO, Utah – There’s a lot of newness for BYU basketball in the 2022-23 season. From a new-look roster to an assistant coach on the bench, additional support staff, and the reality of one year from now being in the toughest basketball league in America, the Big 12.
Amid all the “new” is Mark Pope. Pope enters his fourth season as the BYU basketball head coach.
The former NBA big man and National Champion at Kentucky has accomplished a lot during his short time at BYU. He’s compiled a 68-26 record. That’s good for a 72.3% winning percentage. His first three years on BYU’s bench have each resulted in 20-plus wins, making him one of four BYU coaches to reach that milestone (G. Ott Romney, Roger Reid, and Dave Rose).
When Pope took the BYU job after a successful four-year run down the road at Utah Valley, he wanted to take “big swings” for BYU basketball. However, despite BYU basketball’s winning history, which puts them 17th all-time in wins nationally (if you include the two vacated years from the Nick Emery scandal, BYU would be tenth), there is still untapped potential.
Pope will be tasked with tapping into that potential for a program with the distinction of having the most NCAA Tournament appearances without a Final Four appearance.
BYU basketball wants to take big swings
After BYU received the official invitation to the Big 12 in the fall of 2021, Pope felt like he got a new job again. This past spring, Pope was in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the Fiesta Frolic, where he got a glimpse of the new position. He was rubbing shoulders with some of the top coaches in college basketball: Scott Drew, Hall of Famers Bob Huggins, and Bill Self, to name a few. On July 1, 2023, those coaches become Pope’s league rivals.
So yes, the job description suddenly changed in a hurry for Pope.
Pope has never operated in the space of realistic expectations. The biggest dreams you have for BYU hoops, he probably aspires for more than that. If you don’t think he can travel to every country to find talent on the recruiting trail, he will probably take that challenge and try to exceed your expectations.
Knowing that the Big 12 is on the horizon, this final year in the WCC is a foundational season to get the newness of this BYU program in a position to compete when they arrive in what Pope calls a “terrifying” Big 12.
Another ‘Year One’ under Mark Pope
It feels like a year one again for Pope’s program. The goal remains the same, get back to the NCAA Tournament. But there are a lot of unknowns with BYU basketball heading into the 2022-23 season.
“Yeah, I think so. I mean, in so many different ways,” Pope said when asked by KSL Sports if he felt this resembled another first year for him. “We had this three-year run where we had some turnover. But we also had some major pieces of continuity the whole time. So that feels new.”
In Pope’s first three seasons, he fielded veteran teams. During his first “year one” in 2019-20, he got Yoeli Childs to pull his name out of the NBA Draft process and return to BYU. Jake Toolson made one last run with Pope and became one of the best shooters in BYU history. Pope helped get the most out of veteran guard TJ Haws, and the Cougars were a trendy pick to make a run in the NCAA Tournament before the Coronavirus pandemic took it all away.
“[This year] kind of feels in some ways like year one, we were pretty undersized and skilled in that year one. The only difference between this year and year one is we were veterans. And this year, we’re young,” Pope said.
There was the massive transfer portal addition in Matt Haarms causing headlines within the college basketball community. Then, of course, there’s Alex Barcello. The three-year starter, who, despite starting his career at Arizona, was the reliable piece in Pope’s rotation. Barcello meant a lot to Pope and BYU, from leadership to ball handling and shooting. Pope officiated Barcello’s wedding over the summer to his wife, Zoe. That’s how close the bond is with AB.
“I’ve never won a game at BYU without him in the starting lineup,” Pope said on Barcello. “If you think about that, that’s crazy.”
Looking for more in the Big 12 future
Pope looks back on the first three years in high regard. But he’s looking for more in the future.
“We were in the Top 25 for three straight years, which we’re incredibly proud of. Like, that’s an amazing accomplishment and so hard to do. We finished two of those years ranking in the Top 25. With that said, we felt like we weren’t even close to winning it all. So we’ve had this incredible amount of success. But we’re so far from where we’re trying to get to it made us really do deep dives and kind of rethink how we can take that next step. You know, that’s next to impossible. I mean, there are only a few teams that do it.”
While BYU looks to take the next step, Pope made it clear that expectations won’t reset for his program as they transition into the Big 12.
“I think the pathway to get there is different, right? So our pathway to get to our goals in playing the schedule we play in the WCC we have to land somewhere in the vicinity of relatively close to perfect. In the Big 12, that’s just not how that conference functions. You could be 10-8 in that conference and be a four-seed in the NCAA Tournament. So the pathway there is different. But in terms of expectations, the expectations have always been –since we came in– that we’re going to win, and we’re going to win at the highest level. That’s what we’re shooting for, and that’s our job.”
2022-23 could serve as the foundation for BYU basketball
This year’s roster is intriguing. The veteran guard who will look to fill the void left behind by Barcello is Coastal Carolina grad transfer Rudi Williams. Williams is a big personality who refers to everyone around the program by their uniform number. He was a late arrival to campus this past September, but he’s picked up things quickly, and he’s going to be BYU’s point man for an uptempo offensive style Pope wants to incorporate this season.
— BYU Men's Basketball (@BYUMBB) November 5, 2022
Fousseyni Traore is the most proven commodity on BYU’s roster entering this season. But he’s still young as he enters his sophomore year in the program. A fan-favorite, Fouss is a preseason All-WCC selection. He’s become a walking double-double, and he’ll have to play beyond his 6-foot-6 frame for an undersized BYU frontcourt.
Gideon George will help those efforts in the frontcourt with Fouss. After an off-season where he had NBA workouts, George has taken a jump in his game, and he looks primed and ready to take on a significant role for this team.
Then there’s a whole host of young personnel ready to take leaps in their development this year and in the Big 12 era. Look at Arkansas transfer Jaxson Robinson who has star potential at BYU, Spencer Johnson, Trey Stewart, Atiki Ally Atiki, stretch-four Noah Waterman, and returned missionaries Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, and Tanner Toolson.
“We actually have a group together right now that has a chance to grow together for the next two or three years,” said Pope. “I think the potential on our staff and in our locker room is high enough that we could actually grow into something better than we’ve been.”
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.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow his BYU Basketball coverage on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.
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