Cougars have big dreams to begin 2021-22 college hoops season
If you’re going to dream, dream big.
The BYU men’s basketball team has a word board, a list of inspirational quotes and sayings to keep them focused on getting better every day. They talk about those words and have them screen printed on t-shirts, things like “GBED” (which stands for “Get Better Every Day”).
They might as well add “Dream Big,” because that’s what they’re doing heading into the 2021-22 season.
Looking sharp in matching blue Mr. Mac dress suits, the Cougars put their bold dreams into words at the annual media day on Thursday.
“My expectations are nothing short of going to the Final Four,” sophomore forward Caleb Lohner said. “I think we have the pieces and we’ve worked too hard not to. Why not set your goal there? If you want to win, like that’s the biggest stage and that’s where we want to be.”
Getting to the Final Four would be a first for BYU, which has reached as high as the Elite 8 once in 1981 with Danny Ainge.
“I’m not taking anything less than at least a Final Four, to be honest with you,” newcomer Seneca Knight said. “We have a really talented team with a whole lot of experience and I feel like we could accomplish anything that we want. So it’s really just on us.”
Bonus senior Alex Barcello, who chose to return to Provo instead of pursuing a professional career, put the team’s goals even more simply.
“Championships,” he said. “We want to win championships.”
It’s been a long time since the Cougars have won a championship of any kind. The last league title came in 2011 and the last league tournament crown in 2001, both in the Mountain West Conference.
Since joining the West Coast Conference in 2012, there’s been the small matter of Gonzaga, which has won ten straight league titles and is the No. 1 team in the preseason AP poll. BYU is picked to finish second in the WCC to the ‘Zags.
Barcello was asked if it would take a little bit of luck to take down Gonzaga in league play.
“I don’t think it takes luck,” he said. “I mean, Mark Few is a great coach and they (Gonzaga) have a lot of great players that come in every season and they reload. But I don’t think luck needs to play in our favor. We’re a really good team and people need to respect us.
“It’s the same story it’s been every year. People don’t respect us and we prove them wrong. So luck doesn’t play any factor. I think it’s how hard we work and how well we mesh together.”
Another newcomer, transfer guard Te’Jon Lucas, echoed Barcello’s comments.
“I only have one of those (expectations) and that is winning,” he said. “That’s what I’m expecting us to do and hoping we’ll do. I want to win as much as possible because that happens it takes care of everything.”
BYU has been winning since Mark Pope took over the program three years ago. In the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season the Cougars were 24-8 and would have made the NCAA Tournament field if it had been played, finishing No. 18 in the final AP poll.
Last year, BYU posted a 20-7 record and earned a No. 6 seed in the tournament, losing in the first round to a UCLA team that reached the Final Four. The Cougars were 23rd in the AP poll.
Besides Barcello (the team’s leading scorer in 2020-21) and Lohner, head coach Mark Pope returns a number of other experienced players (Gideon George, Spencer Johnson, Trevin Knell, Richard Harward and Gavin Baxter) along with the addition of transfer Lucas and Knight, as well as a talented freshmen class that includes Atiki Ally Atiki (Tanzania) and Fousseyni Traore (Mali).
“We’d like to be a little more aggressive and play a little bit faster,” Pope said. “We’d like to be better defensively, which will be hard because (7-foot-3) Matt Haarms was such a defensive force. We want to be a better rebounding team on offense and defense. We need to protect the ball better.
“So we’ve got a bunch of things on the table right now we’re trying to get better at. It’s going to be fun to see what this team can do. This can be a really special team.”
The proof will be on the court, and those opportunities are coming soon. The Cougars have already had their “secret” scrimmage with Cal – all the coaches and players would acknowledge was that things went well – and an exhibition game against Colorado Christian (Nov. 4) will be followed by the season opener on the Marriott Center against Cleveland State, an NCAA participant last season.
“We’re knocking on the door, right?” Pope said. “We need to do that to keep our national relevance and we need to finish this season again in the Top 25. That would be the first time ever in the history of BYU basketball that’s happened in back-to-back-to-back years. It’s a huge goal for us.
“In the process you just keep pounding on the door and then you trust that you’re going to break through. Listen, this is an unforgiving league. There’s a reason why in the 107-year history of BYU basketball there’s never been a team in Top 25 three straight years, because it’s hard. But these guys have their mind squarely on the goals that we’re chasing and were hungry to do it.”
Jaren Wilkey/BYU BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope (right) discusses the 2021-22 team and season with reporters at the annual media day in the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (BYU Courtesy Photo)