Legendary NBA coach George Karl often told Mark Pope, “A coach’s job is to say exactly the same thing a thousand different ways.”
Pope’s BYU men’s basketball team is nearing the stretch run in West Coast Conference play at 7-3 in league play and 18-7 overall. The metrics used by the NCAA Tournament committee all indicate the Cougars are a March Madness team.
Pope is fond of saying, “We have to get better every day.”
What magical elixir has he and his coaching staff been fixing to serve his team in practice to get such incredible results?
According to Pope, there is no secret formula.
“I don’t know that there’s going to be a wide variation in practices going place to place,” Pope said. “We’ve done a box drill to start one phase of practice since halfway through my first season as a head coach. We have a shell drill session and every team in America does some type of shell drill every single day. I’m not that smart so we do what we believe in and come back to it. This game is not about being some genius that recreates everything or tricks everybody else.”
The type of repetition needed to be good in basketball is monotonous and requires a high level of concentration.
To quote former NBA star Allen Iverson, “We’re talking about practice.”
Pope told a story about sitting with Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his assistant Richie McKay (now the head coach at Liberty) watching a tournament. The conversation turned to how the Cavaliers have been so successful.
Bennett said, “The thing that we fight more than anything else as coaches at Virginia is we fight our guys getting bored because we do the same thing every single day and that’s how you get good at it.”
Pope used the example of senior Jake Toolson patiently working on his 3-point shots over and over again and sophomore Kolby Lee repeatedly practicing his quirky little quick jumper in the paint.
“It’s not sexy and it’s not interesting, but you know what happens?” Pope said. “He gets in a game and all of a sudden it becomes really sexy because he’s producing. I believe that with all my heart.”
Pope’s practices do have some unique features. There is a big white board titled, “BYU Cougars Winner’s Board” which keeps track of the best performances during drills. He uses Shot Tracker to log the player’s shooting numbers. There are video screens to playback certain parts of practice and Pope has a microphone so he can be heard no matter where the players are working. He has the option of practicing in the cavernous Marriott Center or the smaller Annex next door.
The repetition continues outside of practice. The players have a program for their tablets that allows them to watch video clips of their next opponent, both their offensive and defensive sets.
“It’s really just everything about their team,” sophomore guard Alex Barcello said. “It shows us how they’ve been moving throughout the season. It’s really handy to watch that on your phone or your tablet.”
The Cougars practice their offensive and defensive sets over and over but having a senior-heavy roster which allows Pope and his staff to makes changes and tweaks, sometimes on the fly. During games, opponent’s assistant coaches can be heard yelling out plays to their players on the defensive end when BYU goes into an offensive set. Making little adjustments can be the difference between success and failure.
“If you ask me about my philosophy for practice, getting better every day is the deepest,” Pope said. “I think that’s the thing. If you can live there in the monotony of trying to get better every day I think that makes all the difference.
“That doesn’t mean you don’t get really creative with tweaks and tricks but if tweaks and tricks are the bedrock of what you do, I don’t think you’re going to be very good. I don’t think that can support the weight of it.”
It won’t be hard for Pope and his staff to get their players’ attention for Saturday’s rematch against San Francisco.
BYU led by 14 points early in the second half at War Memorial Gym on January 25 when the game went off the rails. USF guards Kahlil Shabazz (10 of 10 from the field, 6 of 6 from the 3-point line) and Jamaree Boyea (10 of 15, 3 of 6) combined for 55 points and the Dons won 83-82, holding off a late Cougar comeback.
After beating BYU, San Francisco routed San Diego 69-44 and pushed No. 2 Gonzaga to the end before falling 83-79.
On Thursday, the Dons were awful in a 60-48 loss at home to Pacific, the Tigers first win at War Memorial Gym since 2007. Shabazz and Bouyea were a combined 2 for 18 from the field and scored just 11 points between them. USF was just 5 of 28 from the field in the first half and trailed 29-13 at the break. The Dons finished the game shooting 16 of 58 (28 percent) from the field and 3 of 24 (12 percent) from the 3-point line.
“This San Francisco team has had our number the last three games,” Pope said. “They’ve beaten us three times in a row. Regrettably, I was terribly outcoached when we played them two weeks ago. They are a great team and it’s a challenging matchup for us for a few different reasons. I hope people come because getting to watch these guys, to see what they’re doing is really extraordinary so I hope people show up at the gym Saturday.”
BYU has won three straight games since the loss to USF, including Thursday’s 85-54 rout at Portland. The Cougars have a string of eight straight games shooting 50 percent from the field or better, one short of the school record of nine set by the 1988-89 team.
“This Portland game was bigger than the Saint Mary’s game and this San Francisco game is bigger than this Portland game,” Pope said. “That is what these guys have earned and it’s so awesome. Let’s go take it for a ride, baby, let’s see what these guys can do down the stretch.”