Provo • Ten or eleven days after he retired as BYU’s head men’s basketball coach, Dave Rose sat down for lunch with then-prospective Cougar coach Mark Pope in Minneapolis, site of the Final Four, and answered any and all questions about the program that his former assistant would inherit a few days later.
Oh, to have been privy to what was discussed.
Pope offered few details when he was asked about it at his introductory news conference on April 10, but whatever Rose said didn’t deter Pope from taking the job. He did, however, drag his feet just enough to get BYU officials to pay him more than they originally offered, and got more for his yet-to-be-named assistants, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
It remains to be seen whether the 46-year-old Pope, who has aspirations to lead one of the top programs in the country down the road, made the right call or not. A better job won’t come if he can’t get BYU back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015.
According to longtime observers of the program, Pope’s task won’t be easy. The program has been shackled by a combination of academic restrictions, a strict and perhaps outdated honor code and unyielding policies in regards to international students and language barriers. How the new coach manages those obstacles will be critical.
A program in a rut
What’s is the state of the BYU basketball program?
It is certainly better than when Rose took over for Steve Cleveland in 2005. The Cougars were coming off a 9-21 season and one of their best players, guard Mike Hall, was graduating.
“It is beyond extraordinary what coach Rose accomplished here,” said the exuberant Pope, prone to a bit of hyperbole.
Pope isn’t taking over a dumpster fire, by any means. The Cougars won 20 or more games in 13 of Rose’s 14 seasons and were 19-13 last season. They have been in the top 25 nationally in attendance, and first or second in the West, most of those years. They have a supportive, interested and engaged fanbase, by any measure.
But the program began stagnating a few seasons ago, perhaps even slid backwards a bit, and Rose didn’t seem to have the energy to reverse course. He acknowledged that as much in several interviews after he stepped down.
“You can trick yourself if you want,” Rose said, admitting he was “kind of numb” in conversations with his players after the Cougars were drubbed 80-57 by San Diego in the West Coast Conference tournament quarterfinals. “But you can’t trick that feeling. That feeling is there. It was time to turn it over to the next guy. I hope this new guy can just go out and kill it.”
Attendance at the Marriott Center plummeted by more than 2,000 fans per game in 2018-19, a factor that BYU administrators surely noticed and likely took into account when they didn’t balk at Rose’s retirement plans, despite having given the 14-year coach a one-year contract extension last November.
Like Rose did in 2005-06, Pope will take over a roster that almost certainly will not include one of its best players. Star forward Yoeli Childs — who led the team in scoring (21.2) and rebounding (9.7) — will forego his senior season and enter June’s NBA draft, barring a major change of heart.
Childs’ departure — most likely for a professional career overseas — is symptomatic of what has plagued Rose’s program the past half-dozen or so years: the inability to keep promising players from either transferring or turning pro before they exhaust all their college eligibility.
“It is a real challenge that we have here,” Rose said, alluding to the fact that many of his players marry relatively early in life.
“They really start to look at their life in front of them, and say, ‘Hey, what can we do to enjoy this the very most?’ And that’s where we lost some guys.”
Childs is the third player in as many years to leave early, joining Eric Mika (2017) and Elijah Bryant (2018), who were also married when they bolted. All three were the team’s leading scorer the season before they left. The list of players who have transferred recently includes Oregon State’s Payton Dastrup, Utah Valley’s Jake Toolson and Isaac Neilson, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Frank Bartley IV, Boston College’s Jordan Chatman and Marquette’s Matt Carolino.
This spring, guards Rylan Bergersen and Jahshire Hardnett have entered the transfer portal and will likely leave, although Hardnett reportedly met with Pope and BYU athletic department administrators a couple days after Pope was hired and could foreseeably return if he doesn’t find a suitable landing spot.
One of the program’s deficiencies is apparent and startling, considering its players are supposed to be known as excellent shooters: The Cougars’ 3-point shooting percentage was 33 percent in 2018-19, their worst in 22 years.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder to go out and prove people wrong,” Seljaas said of the suddenly lowered expectations. “Those type of things are what fuel us. We want to show people that we are a great team and we want to be the best BYU basketball team there ever was. That’s every single year. We are going to push ourselves to do that. We look at it as a positive thing to push us and make last year just a learning year.”
Who’s coming back?
Senior wing Zac Seljaas said last week that he expects “almost everyone except Rylan and Jahshire” to return to play for the new coach. However, there are rumblings that more could be on their way out, including mercurial guard Nick Emery.
Thursday, Chinese big man Shengzhe Li, who signed with BYU and Rose in November, announced via Twitter that he sought, and was granted, a release from BYU. Another international player who signed with the Cougars during the early signing period five months ago, Brazilian Bernardo Da Silva of Wasatch Academy, is still on board, he said last week.
Athletic guard Taylor Miller, a walk-on returned missionary from Las Vegas and Gonzaga transfer Jesse Wade will also be eligible in 2019-20, after having sat out last season. One-time Cal commit Trevin Knell of Woods Cross returns from a church mission.
Clearly, the Cougars’ best player next season will be senior TJ Haws, a 6-4 combo guard who averaged a career-best 17.8 points last season. So Pope doesn’t inherit an empty cupboard, just one that lacks any sort of inside presence outside of 6-10 sophomore Gavin Baxter. The Timpview product excelled the latter half of the season and should continue to progress under the tutelage of Pope and likely assistant Chris Burgess, the former Duke and Utah player who is said to be outstanding at developing big men.
Speaking of developing talent, that’s something that critics contend Rose and his former staff failed to adequately accomplish. The roster does feature four ESPN top-100 recruits — Haws, Emery, Baxter and rising sophomore Connor Harding — but hasn’t produced the results many Cougar fans had hoped for.
Pope is expected to try to bolster the roster with a transfer or two — perhaps from his former school, Utah Valley. The aforementioned Toolson, the WAC Player of the Year, is available as a grad-transfer but considered a longshot, and 6-11 center Baylee Steele, another grad-transfer, has announced he’s headed to Duquesne.
Three other Wolverines — Orem High product Richard Harward, 6-10 center Wyatt Lowell of Gilbert, Ariz., and former SLCC guard Isaiah White — are also in the transfer portal according to radio station 1280 The Zone.
Another of Pope’s prized recruits when he was at UVU — American Fork guard Trey Stewart — could also be a target although the 6-3 Stewart is headed out on a church mission first.
Other impediments to success
Are expectations too high at BYU, given the aforementioned impediments? Pope doesn’t think so, saying at his news conference that the resources and facilities are in place to succeed.
“Certainly there is a standard of excellence that has been set with this basketball program, and incredibly high expectations, and that is one of the most enticing things to me about taking over this position, are those high expectations and the way we will be able to embrace them,” he said.
Pope said Gonzaga’s otherworldly success in the WCC shows it can be done out of a conference that is generally better than many locals believe it is. For instance, the WCC ranked eighth in the final RPI rankings, one spot below the Pac-12 and way ahead of the No. 15-ranked Mountain West.
Pope said he won’t schedule easier nonconference opponents just to get to 20 wins, though that doesn’t mean what is used to because teams play more games than they did 20 years ago.
“We will schedule really, really aggressively,” he said. “We will be fearless in everything we do. We will take our lumps and we will jump back off the mat and with confidence go on to the next battle. Our team will be a team that’s not afraid of failure, that’s not afraid of growing.”
Those lumps could come quickly — the Cougars will play in the Maui Invitational in November against the likes of Kansas, Michigan State, UCLA and Virginia Tech (the bracket has yet to announced) — and continue through January and February because the WCC again figures to continue its improvement, despite its perception nationally and even locally in some quarters.
Gonzaga will lose stars Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura to the NBA, but have another top-10 recruiting class coming to Spokane. Several other WCC programs, such as Saint Mary’s and Loyola Marymount, are going to be better.
Bottom line is that BYU right now has the resources and facilities to compete with the likes of Gonzaga in conference and Utah out of conference, but lacks the bonafide talent. That’s the upgrade the Cougars need the most, and Pope seemingly knows it.
“The guys who make it into our program are going to be guys who really really want to be here,” he said. “They want to come get what we are offering. … We need to find young men that are really talented players, that have big dreams, that have unbelievable insides.”
So a disgruntled fanbase can start believing again.
BYU’s PROJECTED ROSTER
TJ Haws, Sr.
Dalton Nixon, Sr.
Zac Seljaas, Sr.
Nick Emery, Sr.
Gavin Baxter, Soph.
Connor Harding, Soph.
Kolby Lee, Soph.
Jesse Wade, Soph.
Trevin Knell, Fr.
Bernardo Da Silva, Fr.
Evan Troy, Sr.
Taylor Maughan, Sr.
Taylor Miller, Fr.
Note: Timpview High’s Nate Hansen signed in November but will serve an LDS Church mission to Arkansas before enrolling