COUGAR TRACKS

Mark Pope Remains Confident In BYU’s Potential After Loss To Utah

Dec 9, 2023, 9:43 PM | Updated: 11:21 pm

BYU Basketball, Utah Utes, Aly Khalifa...

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - DECEMBER 9: Keba Keita #13 of the Utah Utes is boxed out by Jaxon Robinson #2 and Aly Khalifa #50 of the Brigham Young Cougars during the second half of their game at the Jon M Huntsman Center on December 9, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – Was BYU basketball brought back to earth after a 73-69 loss to rival Utah?

After a performance where BYU only hit 37% shots from the field, 23% from three, and 56% from the foul line, you could probably pull an iconic line from former NFL coach Dennis Green.

“They are who we thought they were!”

BYU entered the season with low expectations as a preseason No. 13 team in the Big 12.

The low expectations were warranted as they finished with 19 wins a season ago.

BYU jumped out to an 8-0 start and was an analytics darling, catapulting them to No. 1 in the NET and No. 14 in the AP Top 25.

Mark Pope exits the Huntsman Center feeling optimistic despite loss to Utah

Despite the loss to Utah in their first true road game of the season, Mark Pope exits the Huntsman Center, remaining optimistic about his 8-1 squad’s potential.

“Congratulations to Utah. They played tough with a ton of intensity. It’s a terrific win for them. I’m proud of my guys,” Pope said under the tight area of the east tunnel at the Huntsman Center. “In parts of the game where we could kind of find the space to be us, we were really good. I’m super proud of that.

“And I probably have a little more confidence than ever that we have a chance to grow into a really good team. So I’m excited about that.”

To Pope’s point, BYU only dropped two spots in the KenPom ratings after the defeat. BYU is now at No. 8 in KenPom’s metrics.

High-ball screens hurt BYU basketball against Utah

The feel of Saturday’s game at the Huntsman Center would have led you to believe that BYU got run off the floor against their rival.

BYU only had one lead in the game. That was at the 18:43 mark of the first half at 3-2. From there, Utah always had the answers.

Utah reserve big man Keba Keita was exceptional, scoring 10 points and grabbing six rebounds. The Utes haven’t lost a game he has played this season.

BYU struggled early with Utah starter Branden Carlson as he jumped out to 13 points. But he was bottled up in the second half with only two points.

“We got exposed a little bit with high-ball screens,” said Pope. “We weren’t ourselves in transition defense in the first half and we gave up 15 transition points in the first half. A lot of it was just this over-eagerness for the first time ever all season. We had guys repeatedly flagging the ball in the backcourt, and that’s never been us. That’s sometimes what the emotion of the game does. It pulls you somewhere that’s not you. And it’s very fixable.”

This BYU basketball team just did enough to keep hanging around in the game. To the point where they found themselves down by two, 71-69, with nine seconds remaining in the game.

Dallin Hall, who hit two game-winners last season, got the ball from Aly Khalifa but lost the possession with Keita guarding him.

“I wanted to have a go-game and a wraparound on the weak side. Aly did a great job getting the catch. Dallin did a nice job coming over free and then he just lost the handle,” Pope said. “We kind of looked for him to get downhill but also to come to two feet and then we have some curl stuff on the back end.”

The setback gave BYU their first loss of the season. And ends their three-game winning streak over Utah.

Big 12 road venues are in the near future

But unlike in years past, where quad-one opportunities were few and far between as a mid-major, BYU coach Mark Pope knows the resume-defining moments are going to be every road trip in the Big 12 Conference.

“It’s coming from ‘want.’ It’s coming from so much want and so much care. We just gotta dial that back a little bit so we can be ‘us’ in this environment. The really nice thing for us here is that we’re going to be in this environment 20 times the rest of this season. I’m proud of the way guys responded. We just came up a little bit short and we just weren’t quite good enough at being us tonight.”

BYU has shown they will be a tough out for anyone in the Marriott Center. The Cougars already knocked off nationally-ranked San Diego State in Provo.

Road games? That’s where this team will be defined.

The good thing is that any road victory in the Big 12 has potential for Quad One or Quad Two. But those road wins could be hard to come by for this group–especially if they don’t have their full collection of personnel.

Health is a concern for BYU basketball

It would help BYU’s cause if they could get UC Irvine guard Dawson Baker back sooner rather than later from a foot injury. Baker hasn’t appeared in a game this season. But he’s someone who, during training camp, was emerging as one of the top players until his injury.

Fousseyni Traore remains out with a hamstring injury. The timeline for his setback is up in the air.

Need to knock down shots on the road

But the fears for this group that’s playing reared its ugly face against the Utes. When the shots aren’t falling, what happens?

As Pope put it, they were “bipolar” on offense in the setback.

When BYU basketball hits threes, with the high volume they will continue to shoot this season, they can hang with anyone. But if the shots aren’t falling –especially on the road– BYU looks vulnerable.

Starters Trevin Knell, Noah Waterman, and Aly Khalifa were a combined 0-for-11 against the Utes as an example of the struggles from distance.

BYU basketball won’t have another road test until Big 12 play when they take on Baylor on January 9.

So, the loss to the Utes serves as a learning lesson they must improve upon if they want to continue trending up on the meteoric rise this season.

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 Remains Confident In BYU’s Potential After Loss To Utah