COUGAR TRACKS

What’s Next For BYU Basketball As They Prepare For Big 12 Move?

Mar 13, 2023, 5:38 PM | Updated: 5:49 pm

PROVO, Utah – BYU basketball closed their time in the West Coast Conference with an underwhelming 19-win campaign. It was only the third time in the 21st century that BYU didn’t qualify for the NCAA or NIT postseason fields.

After that type of season, staring down the 14-team Big 12 that still includes Texas and Oklahoma next season is, in Mark Pope’s words, “terrifying.”

But there’s always hope for better days ahead.

Revisiting the 2022-23 BYU basketball season

Coming into the 2022-23 season, BYU coach Mark Pope was not shy in his assessment of his team. He always referred to them as “new and young.” When the chase of NCAA Tournaments or high rankings was brought up, Pope quickly dismissed that idea with this group as he often said he wanted to see this group get better every day.

Back at WCC Media Day in October, Pope even said that he was feeling better about this group being able to be competitive in the WCC.

What I’m trying to say here, there was not an NCAA Tournament-or-bust outlook for this group.

The expectations dipped because Pope and his staff could not land some heralded Transfer Portal targets.

Antoine Davis from Detroit, who nearly became the all-time leading scorer in NCAA history, opted to stay at Detroit Mercy because of a Chinese NIL deal with Glowballs. They lost out on the nation’s number one JUCO guard Sean East, who has carved out a role on NCAA Tournament-bound Missouri. Plus, they missed on frontcourt player Josiah Allick, who ended up starting in all 32 games for New Mexico this season, and Fredrick King, who signed with Creighton.

Add those four players or a combination of those guys; the projections would have been far different for BYU this season.

BYU’s staff still found a way to land former Top-100 recruit Jaxson Robinson from Arkansas and grad transfer point guard Rudi Williams.

There was still an issue in the front court. Outside of All-WCC performer Fousseyni Traore, there was a shortage of big men on the roster.

Williams had a late arrival to campus in September, plus Robinson was getting used to being a key cog for a team. He was seldom used at Texas A&M and Arkansas, so it was a big adjustment for the 6-foot-7 guard who coaches wanted to come out of his shell and connect with teammates.

So the idea of BYU delivering another single-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament or being part of the chase nationally was probably unrealistic for this group after so much change.

But as Mark Pope told me when I asked him if BYU Athletic Department administrators Tom Holmoe and Brian Santiago had reset expectations in the program due to the upcoming Big 12 move, “I don’t think there’s any reset of expectations,” said Pope. “…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, and that’s what we’re shooting for. And that’s our job.”

Early struggles for BYU basketball

This team’s youth and lack of size showed issues on opening night against a bad Idaho State team. BYU needed a game-winner from Spencer Johnson to avoid an embarrassing loss at home.

Then there was a competitive effort on the road against nationally-ranked San Diego State, but another heroic effort was needed to pull out a win over Missouri State. This time from freshman guard Dallin Hall.

The wheels looked to be falling off on the season at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. BYU was getting blown out by USC, only to make a valiant effort in the second half to make it more competitive. A loss to a subpar Butler team left BYU staring down a winless MTE as they geared up for Dayton.

Dayton opened the game with a 10-0 lead. It had the makings of a BYU team ready to pack its bags and return home, especially with one of their leaders Spencer Johnson from the previous game.

A 10-point deficit later turned to 23. But credit to Pope and his team, they didn’t throw in the towel. Instead, they roared back in the second half to force overtime and knocked out the Flyers with a 79-75 win. At the moment, that victory felt like the turning point of the season.

Instead, BYU suffered devastating losses to South Dakota and Utah Valley. Suddenly any momentum was lost in non-conference play.

When the initial NET ratings were released in December, BYU began at No. 190. After the loss to UVU, they dipped to No. 216, a program low since the NET ratings debuted in 2018-19.

Last year, BYU had issues within the locker room. The “Best Locker Room In America” mantra that had become a staple in Pope’s program suddenly vanished. After the South Dakota and UVU losses, it was easy to assume that BYU was headed toward another fractured locker room and a season disaster.

Once again, they bounced back. BYU reeled off a seven-game win streak after a “heart-to-heart talk”, including wins over Creighton in Vegas and rival Utah in Provo.

So close, yet so far

WCC play opened up with BYU starting 3-1. They welcomed a Top-10 Gonzaga team to Provo for one final time as WCC rivals. BYU held a 73-69 lead with less than 90 seconds remaining. A wreckless turnover and Gonzaga’s Julian Strawther burying a three late dealt BYU a heartbreaking loss.

That was a theme for BYU throughout their final year as a WCC team. So close, yet so far in the process. BYU’s wins in league play this year were by double figures. At the same time, nine of the 10 losses were by single digits. The lone double-digit setback was surprisingly against last-place Pepperdine on February 9. A setback that put any hopes of an NIT off the table.

Close calls against Saint Mary’s in the regular season didn’t carry over to Vegas, where BYU’s season ended as so many WCC Tourneys ended—a semifinal loss to Saint Mary’s.

What’s Next?

BYU continues a “long game” in preparation for the Big 12. In October, Mark Pope told KSL Sports that he felt the current group of players could “grow together for the next two or three years.”

When Pope and his staff put this roster together, they always viewed it from a long-term perspective—a dangerous move because long-term views are challenging in today’s college basketball.

“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. “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.”

After a season where BYU was in the bottom 10 nationally for “luck” (KenPom ratings) yet still pulled off 19 wins and a Top 90 NET rating, there are some things to build on. But they need to get older.

The Transfer Portal is a place where BYU can make that happen.

“We’re plenty young. We’ve got to get older. It’s hard to win young; I don’t know who’s winning young. Maybe sometimes Kentucky and Duke do it. But I don’t know anybody that is winning young,” said Pope. “We’re so young right now; we can’t stay young. We’ve got to have an influx of some veteran guys to come and help us.”

Gideon George and Rudi Williams departing as graduating seniors open up two scholarships, but one will be occupied by heralded freshman Jake Wahlin returning home from a mission. Wahlin is a 6-foot-7 guard/forward that was a prep standout at Timpview High School.

BYU can’t operate solely on just one available scholarship. There will need to be some openings. Which players depart to create those openings will be interesting. Will it be guys that Mark Pope has hard conversations with? Or will it be individuals disgruntled with their roles or the program? Ideally, for BYU, the deflections come in the form of Pope having difficult conversations.

Through the portal, BYU needs to find some size, plus veteran players that can knock down threes. Last year was tough on the portal trail for BYU as they tried to land heralded prospects without a NIL collective arming them.

Now BYU has a collective, The Royal Blue Collective—a collective led by BYU booster and fan Mark Comer which BYU Athletics officially sponsors.

What type of pull can a collective, Big 12 affiliation, and Mark Pope’s ability to recruit have on the recruiting trail? We’re going to find out.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in Mark Pope’s tenure at BYU, he will be relentless on the recruiting trail.

The Big 12 is making him and his staff work even harder. When schools could begin contacting class of 2024 high school recruits last year, Pope’s staff reached out to many blue chip prospects. They’ve also been planting seeds for months with 2025 recruits.

But in the here and now, the Transfer Portal plus roster retention for the top players on this past team have to be the focus.

With the collective in place, that has to give BYU a chance to get more into the mix to achieve its goal of getting older while maintaining the young core that needs to include Fousseyni Traore, Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, Atiki Ally Atiki, and Jaxson Robinson.

Mark Pope has completed four seasons at BYU

After putting together one of the best teams in college basketball in 2020, then a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2021, the last two years have produced a slide for Mark Pope and BYU basketball.

Is the hot seat ramping up on Pope? The seat should get warmer because, as Pope said in October, the expectation is always to compete at a high level. It’s major college athletics, and a lot of money is on the line. But this is still BYU. A place that hasn’t fired a men’s basketball coach since Roger Reid in 1996.

A question that often gets overlooked is how Tom Holmoe and Brian Santiago feel about the program’s current state. They’ve been radio silent since the start of the academic year. Are they fully bought into the “long game” Pope wants to oversee as BYU transitions into the Big 12?

Mark Pope is the best fit for BYU basketball to lead them into the Big 12. He’s got the Power Five-level mindset to win in recruiting. Pope delivered the highest-rated signee for BYU in Colin Chandler in the internet era. He gives BYU the best chance at taking the program’s recruiting to new heights.

But does he need a tweak to his staff to elevate his program to a higher level on the court? Think about when Dave Rose had Dave Rice or brought in Heath Schroyer near the end of his tenure.

Or does Pope keep his options open in the head coaching carousel, as he did two years ago when his name was linked as a possibility for the Arizona job after Sean Miller was dismissed?

Pope’s stock, once red-hot after two impressive years at BYU, has cooled off. But he still gets a lot out of his BYU teams. So I’d be surprised if Pope wasn’t back next season.

Unless BYU lacks any resemblance of competitiveness in the Big 12 next year, he probably should get at least BYU’s first two years in the Big 12. That coincides with the arrival of Chandler returning home from his Latter-day Saint mission.

The Big 12 awaits 

The good news about BYU joining the Big 12 Conference, a 19-15 record probably gets you into the NCAA Tournament with a single-digit seed. But the bad news is, where will BYU find 19 wins?

Seventy percent of this year’s Big 12 earned bids into the NCAA Tournament. Plus, Oklahoma State, who was team No. 69, earned a 1-seed in the NIT. The two teams that didn’t qualify for the postseason (Oklahoma and Texas Tech) finished in the top 68 of the NET ratings.

Welcome to the toughest league in America. Where, as Commissioner Brett Yormark will tell you, they aren’t taking “nights off.”

The schedules will be uneven with a 14-team Big 12 next year as the league will continue with an 18-game slate. How many games they will play in 2025 and beyond after Texas and Oklahoma are yet to be determined.

The non-conference schedule, a task led by assistant Nick Robinson, will likely be scaled back. BYU’s rivalry with Utah has been a game that Mark Pope has gone on the record saying he would like to see continue. However, he hasn’t committed to any other in-state games.

Rightfully so.

When you stare down 18 quad one games in your league, it’s a world BYU basketball has never operated in. But it’s a world that has the potential to be far more rewarding.

Each game will be viewed as a big game, instead of the previous setup in the WCC, where only five to six games in a 16-game league schedule had the opportunity to improve a resume or metrics.

BYU could be 6-12 in Big 12 play and go into the conference tournament in Kansas City with a chance to work its way into an NCAA bid. Those are things BYU has never experienced before being in leagues outside the power structure of college hoops.

Finding wins will be difficult. However, Mark Pope’s vision of having an up-tempo, free-flowing offense could lend itself to forming an identity in its new league. They need to execute that vision. That was the goal this past year, but there were many games where BYU looked closer to Saint Mary’s tempo instead of being one of the fastest teams in the nation.

Every night will test BYU in ways they’ve never experienced before. And Mark Pope will have coaching battles against some of the best in the sport with Kansas’ Bill Self, Scott Drew from Baylor, Jerome Tang at Kansas State, and Hall of Famer Bob Huggins at West Virginia, to name a few.

Better days lie ahead for BYU basketball. Will it come in the form of more wins? It might not. But a wider margin for error will be given to BYU now that they are a small fish in the big-time pond.

No longer does BYU have to worry about recruits asking about playing in gyms the same size as Lone Peak High. Instead, they can sell some of the most challenging road atmospheres in the nation, along with pitching prospects on their raucous environment at the Marriott Center that delivered the best per-game attendance out west last season.

There will be no shortage of storylines for BYU hoops next season. But first, they must lay the foundation for that Big 12 debut this off-season.

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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 Mitch’s coverage of BYU moving to the Big 12 Conference on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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What’s Next For BYU Basketball As They Prepare For Big 12 Move?