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How BYU Basketball Stayed Resilient To Reach 2024 NCAA Tournament

Mar 18, 2024, 2:30 AM | Updated: 2:47 pm

PROVO, Utah – One year ago, on the opening day of the 2023 NCAA Tournament, BYU basketball coach Mark Pope was in his office hopping on a Zoom call.

The Zoom call was a standard end-of-year review with the local media. Before COVID, it was common practice in the coach’s office.

Regardless, word spread that Pope was holding what BYU referred to as a “press conference.”

After an underwhelming fifth-place finish in the WCC and a 19-win season, disgruntled BYU fans on social media and message boards started rumors that Pope was ready to hang it up and move on.

Or BYU was moving on from Pope and they were using the beloved first day of March Madness as a shield to bury the news.

None of that was the case. Again, it was a standard end-of-year Q&A to put a bow on the season.

Pope opened his Zoom call, poking fun at the rumblings entering his virtual end-of-season chat.

“Wait, don’t we have a major announcement?” Pope rhetorically asked. “An earth-shattering, groundbreaking announcement. No, we don’t; fire away [with questions], guys.”

Despite the joke. A year ago, few outside the Marriott Center Annex walls believed in the direction of BYU basketball.

It was easy to discredit the trajectory of the program.

BYU basketball ignored the low expectations entering the Big 12

After all, they were preparing to join the nation’s toughest basketball conference, the Big 12, following an underwhelming season in the WCC.

Big 12 coaches didn’t see much of a threat emerging from their new Western colleague either.

Last October at Big 12 Media Days in Kansas City, the league’s 14 coaches ranked BYU finish to finish 13th out of 14 teams.

Pope and his program ignored the criticisms and followed the path they envisioned for BYU hoops when the Big 12 officially extended its invite in 2021.

Quietly, Pope was confident that his program would “make some noise” in the Big 12.

That vision included a veteran team who shot the three among the nation’s elite and pushed the tempo up and down the floor.

After finishing the 2024 season second in the nation in three-pointers per game and having a winning record in its inaugural Big 12 season, it’s safe to say that Pope’s vision for BYU basketball is working.

BYU took down Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse, defeated Baylor, and won by double-digits over Big 12 Tournament Champion Iowa State.

One year after that funny but awkward moment on a Zoom call, Pope won’t be sitting idle in his office during the first day of March Madness.

Instead, he leads BYU basketball into the 2024 NCAA Tournament as an at-large No. 6 seed to face the Duquesne Dukes on Thursday morning in Omaha, Nebraska.

Humble, but the chase for a Final Four continues

It wasn’t always smooth sailing for BYU basketball to reach this point.

Mark Pope showed humility in what they stared down by joining the Big 12.

“One of the most important keys to resilience is understanding who you are and how you react,” Pope said. “That’s a big reason why we made this a multi-year project: so we could come into this league knowing ourselves a little bit better than having two months together in the bank.”

While displaying humility, the relentless desire to “swing big” always remained for Pope.

BYU holds the distinction of being the D-1 program with the most NCAA Tournament appearances (31) without a Final Four run. Pope doesn’t shy away from the fact that he is building his program with the goal of chasing BYU’s first-ever Final Four bid.

“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,” said Pope. “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.”

BYU basketball roster construction

The roster construction for the 2023-24 squad relied heavily on roster retention. BYU was successful on that front.

They retained guards Jaxson Robinson and Dallin Hall for a second year, and forward Fousseyni Traore returned for a third season.

Then Spencer Johnson was set to return to take the mantle as college basketball’s oldest player (26), and sharpshooting guard Trevin Knell made his return from shoulder surgery that sidelined him the previous year.

Knowing they had a roster with a lot of experience returning. BYU was selective in the Transfer Portal.

Cohesive additions in the Transfer Portal

They didn’t take the approach of just adding talent to add talent.

Pope and his staff knew they could add talented players from the portal, even if BYU’s NIL pool isn’t as deep and fast-moving as other power conference hoops programs.

During the 2020 cycle, they landed the nation’s top transfer in 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms from Purdue.

The issue was not picking up talent. It was finding the right fit for the on-court style they wanted to run in the tough, rugged Big 12 and on and off the court as well.

BYU basketball adds college basketball’s Nikola Jokic

They made 6-foot-11 University of Charlotte center Aly Khalifa a top priority. BYU coaches felt Khalifa’s Nikola Jokic-style of passing would be a perfect fit in their offense.

Khalifa, known as “The Egyptian Magician,” picked BYU over a strong push from the Florida Gators in the portal.

Leveling up the support staff physically and mentally

Along with adding players to the roster, BYU basketball built up its support staff.

BYU hired Michael Davie, formerly with the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA, to lead the Strength and conditioning division. They also added four mental health coaches to help players navigate the grind of a Big 12 schedule.

On top of all that, BYU’s staff researched every possible angle about the Big 12. The members, style of play, venues, scheduling tendencies, etc. So they could step into the league and hit the ground running.

But personnel always trumps all when it comes to wins and losses. So, BYU continued to work on rounding out its roster.

BYU added UC Irvine transfer guard Dawson Baker. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Baker was lightly recruited by Dave Rose’s staff as a high school recruit. That led him to begin his collegiate career with the Anteaters in the Big West.

Baker was an All-Big West performer for Irvine and was considered a player who could make an immediate impact for BYU.

NIL causes a hangup in the backcourt

The final piece to the puzzle was another ballhandler to pair up with Dallin Hall.

BYU targeted Samford guard Ques Glover. The former Samford and Florida Gator committed to BYU in May. But his stay in Provo was short-lived.

Three months later, before BYU began summer practices, Glover entered the Transfer Portal over NIL money, according to Mark Pope.

Glover ended up at a fellow Big 12 program, Kansas State. The fifth-year guard never played a minute for Kansas State this season due to a preseason knee injury he suffered.

Still, the loss of Glover at the time was significant.

BYU got a barometer of how significant a loss Glover would be on their foreign tour.

Media members got the chance to watch one of those scrimmages in August, leading up to the tour. It’s safe to say it wasn’t pretty.

The threes weren’t falling. Then, a fight broke loose between Atiki Ally Atiki and Trey Stewart, where punches were thrown.

After all that, on the final play of the scrimmage, guard Dallin Hall knocked down a half-court shot for a game-winner, lifting his team to victory.

Despite another display of late-game heroics from Hall, it didn’t feel like much had changed from the 19-win squad that struggled in the WCC. What was this going to look like in the Big 12?

Where BYU basketball in 2024 came together

The outlook on BYU changed overseas during the trip to Italy and Croatia.

“When we took that foreign trip to Italy, we won our first two games pretty easily,” said BYU guard Spencer Johnson. “But then we went and played the number one team in Croatia. They were a bunch of pros, and they were really good—a bunch of grown men.

“I want to say we had a lead at halftime. And we were like, ‘Dang. We’re a really good team.’ A lot of stuff happened, and we ended up losing that game. But I think it dawned on us that we can be really special if we can keep this rolling.”

During that foreign tour, the often quiet Jaxson Robinson connected with his teammates on a deeper level. In return, his game on the floor took off.

Robinson scored 26 points against an Italian professional team and recorded six steals, four assists, and two rebounds as BYU’s backup point guard. The role that Ques Glover was going to fill.

BYU felt they were in a good spot.

However, there were questions about the depth as BYU’s two other transfers, Aly Khalifa and Dawson Baker, could not play overseas due to injuries.

Khalifa was dealing with a knee and Baker was navigating a foot injury.

Bringing back close relationships in the locker room

The good news was that there was chemistry brewing for BYU. It had signs of Mark Pope’s first team in 2019-20, which also had a foreign tour and dubbed itself the “Best Locker Room in America.”

During road trips, BYU players would squeeze into a hotel room and play Super Smash Brothers against one another because they liked being together.

That trait was missing from BYU’s previous two teams, and it was no coincidence that those teams didn’t make an NCAA Tournament appearance.

“For us, it’s 100% critical,” said Pope on building close relationships. “Those relationships not only help you function well on the court when you’re playing well. But they help you stay alive and stay afloat when things get hard. Certainly, in the Big 12, things get hard for everybody and for every team. So it is vital. And it didn’t happen by mistake or by accident. It’s our guys.”

Dallin Hall, Spencer Johnson, and Trevin Knell stepped up as leaders. At the same time, Jaxson Robinson stepped out of his comfort zone to connect with all of his teammates.

The returning personnel’s leadership and proven track record left Pope not chasing to fill the remaining two scholarships available on his roster. He only wanted to add if it was a player with a “high ceiling.”

They found a prospect who fit that billing in four-star prospect Marcus Adams from Narbonne High School in Southern California.

Adams, who had initially signed with Kansas after leaving Lawrence, considered transferring to BYU but opted to sign with Gonzaga. After a few weeks in Spokane, 17-year-old Adams returned to the portal.

BYU jumped at the opportunity to add him after they returned home from their foreign tour. Adams quickly committed to the Cougars on the day of BYU football’s season opener and enrolled in school the following week. That gave Pope, at a minimum, a prospect that could learn for a year with no stress and be ready to contribute down the road.

After adding Adams, it was time to focus on the season.

BYU still didn’t know what to expect from Khalifa and Baker, who were dealing with lingering injuries.

Then Adams suffered an injury in training camp as well.

Regardless of the questions surrounding the newcomers’ availability, BYU liked the core that faced adversity last season and decided to run it back for its first run as a Big 12 team.

When the season rolled around, as many teams integrated overhauled transfer-filled rosters, BYU got to the games were a tight knit group that gelled beyond the court.

Climb to No. 1 in the NET during nonconference play

The results were impressive. BYU jumped out to an 8-0 start to the season that included a win at home over nationally-ranked San Diego State.

AP pollsters immediately put BYU within striking distance of the Top 25 rankings after the San Diego State victory. But more importantly, the fast start helped the predictive metrics fall in love with BYU.

BYU reached No. 1 in the NET ratings in early December after starting the year 8-0.

They secured BYU’s first MTE title since Jimmer Fredette’s senior year in 2010-11 as Noah Waterman earned MVP in the Vegas Showdown.

Their only blemish of nonconference play was its lone road game at rival Utah.

Utah’s high-ball screens gashed BYU in the 73-69 defeat. But despite losing without Fousseyni Traore, Mark Pope remained confident in his team for Big 12 play.

“I probably have a little more confidence than ever that we have a chance to grow into a really good team,” said Pope after the loss to Utah in December. “So I’m excited about that.”

BYU closed out the nonconference on a four-game winning streak and entered Big 12 play with a 12-1 overall record.

As national college basketball insider Jon Rothstein said about BYU’s play in nonconference, “They put themselves in position to be in position.”

The predictive metrics such as the NET, KenPom, Haslam Metrics, and EvanMiya loved BYU’s team.

What was exciting for BYU coming out of nonconference play was that they never had their entire collection of personnel.

Fousseyni Traore missed all of December with a hamstring injury. Dawson Baker made a pair of cameos in nonconference but was shut down due to his nagging foot injury.

Aly Khalifa was still dealing with his knee injury and Atiki Ally Atiki had a broken thumb.

But those who didn’t lean into predictive ratings felt BYU would be exposed in Big 12 play when the schedule became more challenging.

After BYU’s opening night in America’s toughest conference, the detractors looked correct.

Jumping into the deep end of America’s toughest conference, the Big 12

BYU let Cincinnati come back from a 10-point second-half deficit to defeat the Cougars by 11 in its Big 12 debut.

In the loss, BYU fired off 46 three-point attempts, shooting 28.3% from the field.

BYU couldn’t get down and out as they had a quick turnaround to face Baylor in the $212 million Foster Pavilion in Waco.

The Cougars lost to Baylor, 81-72. But they showed they belonged in that Big 12 setting.

BYU gave Baylor a scare, being up 45-36 with 17:52 remaining. But they couldn’t finish the job.

Baylor attempted 28 free throws to BYU’s 14 and, in the process, caused Mark Pope to slam a water bottle on the scorer’s table in front of BYU’s radio crew of Greg Wrubell and Mark Durrant.

But it was a sign that this group will be resilient during the up and down nature of a Big 12 schedule.

First Big 12 win for BYU basketball

BYU’s first Big 12 breakthrough came one game later at UCF’s unexpectedly hostile environment in Orlando.

The 63-58 gave BYU their first Big 12 victory and the 100th win for Mark Pope.

Settling in as a Big 12 team

BYU began settling into life in the Big 12. They blew out nationally-ranked Iowa State in Provo in a game where reserve Richie Saunders embodied the toughness of Big 12 basketball.

Sophomore Saunders, who had an inconsistent role in his freshman season, settled in as a downhill player who would get under opponents’ skin. ISU’s Hason Ward, who tossed an elbow at Saunders, is a prime example.

There were heartbreaking losses to Texas Tech and No. 1 Houston. But as they always did, BYU remained resilient and would bounce back.

BYU was taking down the outgoing Longhorns in Provo when they weren’t asking students to take off “Horns Down” t-shirts.

As the calendar turned to February, BYU notched a road win over a surging West Virginia team without Aly Khalifa, who was dealing with an illness.

BYU appeared to have turned the corner and was ready to climb near the top of the league standings.

Midseason defensive lulls

However, some issues on defense began to arise for BYU. They gave up 82 points to an Oklahoma team that was the first team out of the NCAA Tournament. Then, they allowed second-half runs at home against Kansas State and UCF, which caused the final scores to look much closer than they appeared.

K-State coach Jerome Tang said BYU’s style of play allows teams to get back in the game.

BYU gave up 15 points in 90 seconds against UCF to hold on for a 90-88 home victory. It was a win, but the defense was becoming a growing concern.

Then, the defensive effort bottomed out at Oklahoma State, as the Pokes scored a season-high 93 points on BYU in Stillwater. It ended up being a Quad Two setback, but at the moment, it felt like the old losses from the WCC days when BYU had an uncharacteristic performance.

With doubt creeping in for fans and media members on the outside, BYU showed its resilience and put together an impressive win at home over Baylor to get back on track. However, it followed up that win with another head-scratching loss at Kansas State.

Historic win at Allen Fieldhouse

The loss at K-State left everyone thinking BYU had no shot at winning a game inside historic Allen Fieldhouse at No. 7 Kansas.

BYU stormed back from a 12-point deficit in the second half, hitting 13 threes as they did the unthinkable, defeating Kansas on their home floor. Nobody will forget Dallin Hall knocking down a three over Hunter Dickinson to signify BYU would pull off the upset.

It was a moment that established BYU’s name within Big 12 circles. Even though Kansas isn’t as talented and deep as they’ve been in the past with Bill Self, the Jayhawks are the blueblood of the Big 12. Then, to win at Allen Fieldhouse, it signified that BYU was ready for the big stage.

Finished eight spots higher than Big 12 preseason coaches poll

BYU nearly pulled another memorable win at Iowa State, but they squandered a 14-point lead to the Cyclones inside Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State escaped with a 68-63 victory.

BYU closed out the Big 12 season with a 10-8 record, earning a No. 5 seed in the Big 12 Tournament. Eight spots higher than the Big 12 coaches thought they would finish in the league that produced a conference-record eight NCAA Tournament teams.

Jaxson Robinson earned Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year, but no players were named to the top three All-Big 12 squads. Four players (Robinson, Dallin Hall, Spener Johnson, Fousseyni Traore) earned Honorable Mention All-Big 12.

The Big 12 Tournament was a microcosm of the highs and lows life in a Power Six conference has brought for BYU in its first season.

When they hit the three at a high clip, as they did against UCF with 14 threes, BYU comes out on top. Then, against Texas Tech, in a game where Tech players were “turnt up” over BYU having the game circled due to the loss in Lubbock, BYU was “punked” as they left Kansas City.

BYU basketball displayed resilience as they prepare for 2024 NCAA Tournament

But that loss is in the rearview mirror and doesn’t diminish what BYU has achieved this season as it gets set for a potential Big Dance run.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys, with what they’ve accomplished so far,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “It just takes about two seconds to get lost in the nostalgia of the moments that they’ve created for themselves, Cougar Nation, and BYU over the last five months.”

Now, BYU looks to show its resilience in the greatest stage college basketball has to offer.

“I think that’s one of the huge motivations for us. We’re in no place where we have any desire for this to end,” Pope said. “We know that we have a chance moving forward. So these guys’ full hearts are in it, and they’re in it together as a team.”

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for KSLsports.com and hosts the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow Mitch’s coverage of BYU in the Big 12 Conference on X: @Mitch_Harper.

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