BYU’s Alex Barcello said he is coming back to Provo to win a West Coast Conference title.
Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Gonzaga players are smiling and thinking, “Good luck with that.”
“Alex wants to do the impossible and take a step forward,” Cougar coach Mark Pope said, “and there are not many spots to move up.”
Since 1998, the Zags have won 21 of 27 WCC regular season titles, including nine of the past ten and the past five straight. Since 1996, Gonzaga has claimed 17 out of 22 WCC Tournament championships, including the past six in a row.
Four times BYU has finished second in the WCC regular season and three times it has been second (to Gonzaga) in the WCC Tournament.
The Cougars’ last conference title came during Jimmer Fredette’s senior year in 2011 (in the Mountain West Conference) and BYU hasn’t won a conference tournament championship since 2001.
Barcello — the Cougars top returning scorer and one of only a handful of All-Americans returning in college basketball for the 2021-22 season — is obviously dreaming big.
“As badly as I wanted to go play pro and go overseas, so much was left on the table and there was so much unfinished business I felt like I owed it to the university and the coaching staff that believed in me,” Barcello said. “I owed it to all the people here. My teammates, just seeing how happy they are just to see another player come back, it speaks to how amazing this team is.
“This is a phenomenal environment to be in and one that can help you grow a lot. I want to make the most out of next year and focus on the details of my game.”
Barcello also said he has a bad taste in his mouth after failing to win a conference title and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to UCLA, which advanced to the Final Four. He wants to lead the Cougars on a deep run in the NCAAs.
So here’s the question: Can Barcello and BYU pull all this off?
There have been significant subtractions in the off-season. WCC Defensive Player of the Year Matt Haarms and double-digit scorer Brandon Averette both decided to move on to pro ball instead of returning to Provo for another year. Significant contributors Kolby Lee and Connor Harding have transferred to Dixie State and Utah Valley, respectively. Wyatt Lowell, who suffered a season-ending injury against Gonzaga in January, is still in the transfer portal and oft-injured guard Jesse Wade has retired from basketball.
Pope and his staff have been very active in the transfer portal and snagged University of Milwaukee guard Te’Jon Lucas, a double-digit scorer who averaged better than six assists per games last season. Pope said Lucas actively recruited Barcello to return to Provo.
“Te’Jon a phenomenal guy and a phenomenal player,” Barcello said. “I’m so excited to get on the court with him. He comes in June 11 and our conversations have been great. We’re both winners and we both want to win. He knows our coaching staff will do everything they can in order to get the best teams to play against and win those games. They make the most of every season and I think that’s what drew him in.”
Pope said he and his staff will continue to work in the transfer portal to fill an additional roster spot. Meanwhile, the continued development of returning players such as Caleb Lohner, Trevin Knell, Spencer Johnson, Gideon George, Brandon Warr and Hunter Erickson, along with the expected return of Gavin Baxter from injury, will be closely monitored.
Young players, including returned missionaries Trey Stewart and Nate Hansen, as well as incoming freshmen Fousseyni Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki, will get their opportunities to make an impact.
“Whatever the outside world is saying right now, we don’t care about,” Barcello said. “Everybody just knows no matter what people are saying we’re gong to be really good team. Deep down in my heart I know there were things left on the table, like a conference championship. We were right there. We had the talent to do it and things just didn’t fall our way.
“This year’s team, all of these guys are just great, highly talented guys. They are good people off the court. When you have good people off the court and dudes who love to be in the gym and work hard, they don’t care how good they are right now. They just want to get better. You go down the line and every single person on this team is one piece to our puzzle.”