BYU men’s hoops focused on all aspects of Big 12 move
Harold Mitchell/Special to the Herald
The offseason for the BYU men’s basketball team is where dreams become reality.
After toiling in mid-major land for decades, the school’s athletic programs are preparing for the jump to the Big 12.
A fantastic opportunity, to be sure, but a monumental challenge as well.
“It’s a staggering move,” Pope admitted in his final news conference last week. “We can grow in every space of this game.”
BYU finished its final year in the West Coast Conference with a 19-15 record and just 9-9 in league play. The Cougars advanced to the WCC Tournament semifinals before losing to Saint Mary’s, which earned an NCAA Tourney bid and bowed out in the second round. Gonzaga, which won the league tournament title, will play in the NCAA Sweet 16 on Thursday.
Pope likes to answer question about his program with “we’re just trying to get better every day.” Heading into the most competitive basketball conference in the country will require much more of that growth.
Without an NCAA or NIT invitation, the Cougars are already deep into preparing for the Big 12.
“We’re considering how we can organize things a little bit better, both in our immediate staff and our support staff,” Pope said. “We’ve had ‘The Squad’ (a group of mental heath experts) with us every single day for this entire year. That was such a gift. It was so incredible to have those eyes and ears and that expertise in the office meeting with me once a week. They were helping not just with performance psychology but also with mental health. That’s a space where we’d really like to continue to expand and I think it’s incredibly important.
“It’s not like we need to rebuild a new Marriott Center or a new Annex. We’ve been blessed with incredible facilities that work well here. The main focus is just elevating our play so we can be competitive in that league.”
The NCAA approved the addition of two more coaching spots for college basketball programs while eliminating the volunteer coach position. Those two additional coaches will be utilized mainly for practice and development.
“I’m so excited about it,” Pope said. “It doesn’t necessarily require hiring two new people. You can actually designate current staff members or people that can be permanent full-time also on the court and do recruiting from in-house, they just can’t go on the road. I think it’s the right move by the NCAA. It gives us a chance to really get more man hours with our guys individually on the court, which is vitally important. We’re in the process of trying to address it.”
Infrastructure aside, Pope and his coaching staff are already hard at work in the transfer portal trying to piece together a roster for 2023-24. Seniors Gideon George and Rudi Williams are out of eligibility. Freshmen Hao Dong (walk-on) and Brenden Moore (scholarship) have already entered the portal.
Like all college coaches, Pope is still learning to navigate the positive and negative aspects of the transfer portal.
“I think the beautiful side of the transfer portal is that guys get a chance to kind of take another shot at being where they most want to be,” Pope said. “It’s interesting. When you recruit high school players, it’s not their fault. They have no idea what they actually care about, because they don’t even know what a college experience is like. So you get there and you learn.
“The (transfer) waiver is complicated. I’m going to sound super old school here, but it’s so easy to defer your answer for difficulties and go somewhere new. There’s no doubt that that you lose the experience of things going bad and you have to fight through it and actually make it good. What you lose in that experience is you learn the opportunity to do something you didn’t know you could do. You lose the opportunity to be in a situation where everyone around you is doubting you and you’re doubting yourself, and all you do is put your head down, and you work so hard, you come out the other and have success. It changes you in the process.”
Pope said the NCAA has committed to cracking down on the so-called “run-off waiver,” where a player claims the coach or coaching staff ran him out of the program.
“It’s a complicated situation, but I think there is some benefit to these kids allowing them the opportunity to have to just fight through it,” Pope said. “It’s not an easy situation but we have to take it and make the best of it. It’s a fascinating process.”
BYU will be looking in the portal for size to help Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki inside as well as guards or wings who can create their own shot to replace what Williams did this season. Former Timpview standout Jake Wahlin, a 6-foot-8 wing, is returning from his church mission this spring. So far, the Cougars don’t have any commitments for the Class of 2023.
Online reports indicate BYU has already reached out to portal transfer guards Khalif Battle (Temple) and James White (Ole Miss).
“I think the guys (the current players) are pretty focused on moving forward right now,” Pope said. “There are some factors on our side in terms of what BYU is and what it stands for and how you have to live here. There are some parts in terms of dynamics with the NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) for sure. That’s not supposed to come into play with this transfer portal, but it clearly does in a really, really deep way. Everybody’s kind of thinks it’s free agency every year, right? So we’ll see how it goes.”
Pope was asked if he and is program have lost recruits to NIL.
“I mean, the short answer is yes, of course,” he said. “Without getting into specifics, yes. But that’s OK. There are a lot of filters here at BYU that actually, at the end of the day, are going to give us a really incredible product. That’s a space where we’re going to continue to grow and find out how to do it in a way that’s in harmony with our university. And we’ve already seen incredibly special things happen.”