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Mark Pope Built BYU Basketball Roster With Goal Of Reaching Final Four

Dec 7, 2023, 6:09 PM

PROVO, Utah – BYU basketball head coach Mark Pope has never shied away from his desire to take big swings.

The fifth-year bench boss has always wanted to take BYU hoops to new heights.

Despite being the 17th winningest college basketball program of all time, BYU basketball has milestones in the sport they’ve never reached. One in particular, playing in a Final Four.

BYU holds the dubious distinction of being the program with the most NCAA Tournament appearances (30) without a Final Four appearance.

He wants to change that.

So far, in the non-conference play of the 2023-24 season, Pope has BYU off to an 8-0 start and ranked No. 1 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.

BYU basketball roster was a ‘multi-year project’

Pope joined Hans Olsen and Scott Garrard on the KSL Sports Zone’s “Hans & Scotty G” on Thursday to discuss how this early season success came together.

“This has been a multi-year project for us. It kind of started when we first got here,” Pope said to Hans & Scotty G. on the KSL Sports Zone. “We were really successful in our first three years; we finished two of those seasons in the Top 25. In the third season, we were ranked in the Top 25 and had some injuries. So we felt like we were really successful. But we also felt like we were just so far away. Like we were a Top 25 team, and we felt like we were a million miles away from being a Final Four team, which is what we want to do.”

Pope made a difficult decision to turn to young players last season. Jaxson Robinson, a former Top 50 recruit, was seldomly used at Texas A&M and Arkansas.

Returned missionary Dallin Hall was inserted into the starting lineup months after serving a mission. He showed his ability to hit game-winning shots but also hit the customary returned missionary wall during his first year.

Mark Pope is pleased with the growth of his group

The newness of BYU’s young core yielded subpar results by BYU basketball standards. BYU ended last year with 19 wins and a fifth-place finish in the WCC.

“We made a super conscious decision two offseasons ago to go young with the idea that we didn’t want to go our first year in the Big 12 … not knowing the league, not knowing how it feels, not knowing the venues, not knowing anything, and really not knowing our roster. So we went young last season and really had an unbelievable experience with these young freshmen and sophomores, mostly being the heart of our team. So that’s kind of how the process has gone. We have a middle-class group this year, and we’ll have a veteran class group next and we’re trying to make this a long-term project.”

The gamble at a school not known for taking risks is paying off.

This year, BYU added to their last season’s young core with a pair of transfer portal players they feel can make a significant impact. Charlotte transfer Aly Khalifa has stepped into the starting lineup in replace of an injured Fousseyni Traore. Pope praises Khalifa as one of the best passing bigs in the nation.

The stats back it up, as Khalifa has averaged 4.3 assists since he stepped into the NC State game for Traore.

UC Irvine transfer Dawson Baker, a sharpshooter from the guard line, has yet to appear in a game for BYU. Pope believes Baker will “bring a new dynamic” to BYU’s roster when he returns from a left foot injury.

They haven’t had Baker much, as he has dealt with multiple injuries since BYU’s summer foreign tour to Italy and Croatia.

Number one in scoring margin

BYU is number one nationally in scoring margin, defeating opponents by 32.9 points per game. They are tops in the nation in three-points made per game (12.9), three-point attempts (32.9), and three-point percentage defense (22.4%).

“I haven’t coached a team yet that has been this devoted to focusing on every single possession,” said Pope. “That’s how you kind of live with a margin of victory that we have. Most times, you kind of get bored or distracted when you’re up 15 or 20. Our guys are just enjoying playing the game and they’re devoted to losing themselves in the details of the game.”

A showdown with rival Utah is next

BYU’s toughest test to date this season is approaching on Saturday against rival Utah. It will be BYU’s only true road game of the non-conference schedule. Utah comes into the matchup with a 6-2 mark in the final meeting as non-conference foes before the Utes join the Big 12 in 2024.

“These in-state games are really special guys. It’s that way throughout college basketball. In-state games are beautiful,” Pope said. “I think they’re fun for the fan bases; I think they’re fun for communities. Certainly, I think they’re fun for players, you know, even if they don’t play against each other growing up, they play against each other in the summers in pickup. They are really special, emotional, and heated. And you kind of throw all the stats and metrics out the window. It’s just a freestanding event. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”

After Utah, the next big challenge starts on January 6 when BYU opens its gauntlet of a Big 12 schedule, beginning with fellow undefeated Cincinnati at home.

“We’re excited about wins; we’re excited about all of this stuff,” Pope added. “But I think mostly we’re excited about how our guys are playing together and how our guys are focused. I think the guys are enjoying each other right now. We’ll take all of that and try and grow from it.”

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 in the Big 12 Conference on X and Threads: @Mitch_Harper.

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Mark Pope Built BYU Basketball Roster With Goal Of Reaching Final Four