All season long, BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope has raved about the commitment from his team to be “the best locker room in America.”
On Thursday, the Cougars were in a team meeting before practice when they heard that the 2020 NCAA Tournament had been canceled due to concerns about the COVID-19 virus, and that locker room turned into a place of anguish, tears and utter silence.
“We broke the news to the team and it was the worst locker room I’ve ever been in,” said Pope in a teleconference call. “It was really, really hard.”
The Cougars had fashioned a 24-8 record that included a win over No. 2 Gonzaga at the Marriott Center on Feb. 22. Despite a loss in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament on Monday, BYU’s body of work over the course of the season had them solidly in the NCAA Tournament, perhaps as high as a No. 5 seed.
Now this group that includes seven seniors will never get to finish what they started.
“It seems the whole world turned upside down in about 24 hours, doesn’t it?” Pope said. “The speed that things can change and gain momentum is pretty extraordinary. I think its sobering for all of us.
“We talked about it a lot towards the end of the season that it just can’t end. It’s too special and this group is too close. We care about each other too much and love to compete with each other and then it came to such a screeching, abrupt, halting end. The reality that we don’t get to compete on the floor again is just almost too much to take right now.”
The Cougars were set to make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2015 and overcome some significant adversity, such as a nine-game suspension at the beginning of the season for Yoeli Childs and a variety of key injuries.
“It seems like there were decades worth of extraordinary stories this season in terms of drama with the roster and dealing with injuries and game-winning heroics and incredible streaks and career long stories and sagas of redemption and coming back,” Pope said. “The stories are just endless. You could write a book and not have enough pages to contain all the extraordinary stories of this team, in a basketball sense and for this team and this locker room it’s tragic that they don’t have a chance to finish it.”
Pope said the team will continue to work hard until they hear from the NCAA about what happens moving forward. There is a possibility that seniors could be granted an extra year of eligibility and there would be some difficult decisions to make.
Pope said he believes the legacy of the 2019-20 BYU men’s basketball team is intact.
“There was nothing that could stop this team this year,” Pope said. “It wasn’t suspensions or injuries or a coaching change or roster overhaul or adversity or tough losses or an incredibly difficult schedule. The one thing that stopped this team this year was a pandemic. I do believe that this group was so committed there was nothing that could stop them besides something otherworldly.”
When asked what he’ll take from this season, Pope’s voice was choked with emotion in his response.
That’s easy and it’s not even close, l love these young men. It’s an extraordinary and humbling thing when young men are willing to give you their trust,” Pope said. “That is a real gift as a coach. It’s the building blocks and foundations of a group that can be really special. These guys are unbelievably generous to each other and willing to fight for each other and they have been unbelievably generous to us as a staff. Really, at the end of the day, what I shared with them through all the tears was how much I love them and how grateful I am to them that they allowed me to experience all this with them.”