BYU Basketball Continues ‘Long Game’ With Eye Toward Big 12

Feb 15, 2023, 4:37 PM

PROVO, Utah – BYU basketball is going through a season that could finish with its worst conference record in 17 years. That’s not an ideal way to round out BYU’s final season of the WCC.

These underwhelming results in the WCC lead many to wonder what to expect when BYU joins the nation’s top conference next year, the Big 12.

BYU coach Mark Pope always knew this year would be a transition season. Before the year started, he called this team a “new and young” roster. However, some key misses in the Transfer Portal, like Detroit’s Antoine Davis, would have changed this season’s outlook.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see BYU sitting at 16-12 overall and 6-7 in WCC play. This group had its flaws coming into the year. But there’s a high standard of play for BYU basketball. When you have only one season below 20 wins since 2005. Plus, 30 NCAA Tournament appearances all-time, there’s a high standard.

BYU basketball is turning to the “long game”

To not lower the standard in the future, Pope has turned to a long game. A game that saw him go through massive changes to his roster in an effort to reinvent themselves into something different than they’ve been in his first three years leading the program.

“We actually have a group together right now that has a chance to grow together for the next two or three years,” Pope said to KSL Sports in October. “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.”

Four months after those remarks, is there still patience from Pope for the future? The answer is yes. But he knows the product BYU is putting out this season won’t work in the Big 12. And he knows that what lies in front of his program in the Big 12 will be unlike anything BYU hoops has ever experienced.

This season, all 10 teams in the Big 12 are ranked in the top 65 of the NET rankings. Then they add Houston, who is No. 1 in the NET. Plus, UCF is at No. 56, and Cincinnati is at No. 76. The lowest-rated team right now in the NET in next year’s Big 12 is BYU at No. 91.

“Clearly, we have a lot of work to do in any league that we’re going to be in, especially the best league in the country,” said Pope on Tuesday. “It’s super scary to play the long game in athletics. It’s really, really scary. But for us, it’s the right thing to do. And I’ve got all of the faith in the world that it is going to pay off incredible dividends. But we’re definitely playing the long game with [the Big 12] in mind.”

All but two players on BYU’s roster are underclassmen this season. The lone seniors are Gideon George and Rudi Williams. After that, it’s a roster of players that have the potential to return.

Nothing is guaranteed in college sports. The transfer portal window will open up in less than four weeks. So that’s always a possibility to create some changes.

BYU will need to add some players out of that portal to improve the talent on the roster and get older. But the key contributors could all run it back next season and for a couple of years into the Big 12.

Pieces to work with in the future

Fousseyni Traore is closer to 100% health now than at any point this season. The 6-foot-6 forward has dealt with his share of injuries this season while playing out of position at center. Yet he’s still averaging 12.9 points and 7.8 rebounds as the number-one threat on an opponent’s scouting report each night.

Dallin Hall has shown an ability to deliver in the clutch, knocking down game-winners against Missouri State and No. 21 Creighton. Jaxson Robinson has the length and size that made him a coveted recruit by numerous Big 12 programs out of high school.

Spencer Johnson has taken a significant leap forward in his game as the guy who always makes a winning play when BYU needs it the most.

BYU will get sharpshooting guard Trevin Knell back next season, who appears to be on pace toward a redshirt season after off-season shoulder surgery. Plus, 6-foot-7 guard Jake Wahlin from Timpview returns home from his mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lithuania.

There are pieces for Pope and his staff to work with going forward. But what will the identity of Pope’s team be in the Big 12? That’s still a big question.

Mark Pope on the Big 12: “We’re paying close attention”

This season Pope wanted to incorporate an up-tempo brand of basketball that was among the fastest in the country. KenPom has BYU at 40th nationally in tempo but only 5th in the WCC. The defense has been solid for most of WCC play, except for the head-scratching performance that allowed 92 points to last-place Pepperdine in Malibu.

Also, the ability to rebound from this undersized group has been quite an accomplishment.

BYU still has three regular season WCC games left and a trip to Las Vegas for the WCC Tournament. Then it’s all gas and no brakes, whether they are ready or not, to July 1, 2023, when BYU officially joins the best basketball league in America.

“It’s gonna be a really chaotic and really taxing and stressful and worrisome journey,” said Pope. “But all the great journeys are that way, right? So yeah, we’re paying close attention [to the Big 12] all the time.”

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Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU moving to the Big 12 Conference on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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BYU Basketball Continues ‘Long Game’ With Eye Toward Big 12