The BYU men's basketball team has been the West Coast Conference's third-best team in recent seasons.
So, even with the Cougars now piloted by a new coach (Mark Pope) and other new faces, it’s no surprise they were picked to finish third again in the WCC annual men’s preseason poll released in Las Vegas Thursday.
The Cougars were again picked to finish behind No. 1 and national powerhouse Gonzaga (79 points, seven first-place votes) and Saint Mary's (75, three first-place votes).
BYU received 65 points, and were followed by Pepperdine (56), Santa Clara (50) and San Francisco (40). The poll was rounded out with Loyola Marymount (34), Pacific (21) and Portland (9).
Senior TJ Haws said the team has a lot of new faces this year, which means there’s still plenty to learn and chemistry to build, but he’s excited about this year’s squad.
“I feel like we’re growing a lot each day and guys really want to get better — and you can feel that,” Haws said. “I think we really believe in ourselves and believe that we can do something special this year.”
WCC MEN’S PRESEASON POLL
(First-place votes in parenthesis)
1. Gonzaga (7) 79
2. Saint Mary's (3) 75
3. BYU 65
4. Pepperdine 56
5. Santa Clara 50
6. San Francisco 40
7. LMU 34
8. Pacific 21
8. San Diego 21
10. Portland 9
That something special would be a trip to the NCAA tournament, which BYU hasn't made since 2015.
Haws, a three-year starter who has started 101 consecutive games, has never played in a NCAA tournament game. But he feels certain that won't be the case by the end of the season.
“This will be the first year we go to the tournament and I’m really excited about it,” Haws said. “That’s our goal and I really think we’re going to accomplish it. The way we’ve been working, they way we’re improving every single day — I fully believe we’re going to make it there.”
Although the Cougars hope to change where they finish their season, fans should still expect to see the same type of game played by them.
Even with Pope taking over for Dave Rose, who retired after 14 years at the helm of BYU basketball, the Cougars will continue the playing style they’re known for: fast.
“We really love playing fast and I think that’s going to benefit us a lot,” Haws said. “I think we have a lot of great shooters on this team who can play fast and get open looks.”
On the other side of the court, Pope said there's a part of defense that requires a level of monotony of training every single day on exactly the same skill that the team has been willing to put in. And so far it's paying off.
If done right, that monotony turns into true passion because of how much one invests.
However, Pope recognizes that there are still some defensive liabilities, especially with the way the roster is shaping up right now.
“Maybe rebounding is going to be really, really challenging for us, but those are challenges we’re up for,” Pope said. “And we have to find solutions to them. We got to gut them out. We will. That’s the fun of the game — finding solutions to things that you know were going to be challenging.”
The roster has seen a lot of changes and substitutions made in the preseason.
Haws is currently recovering from a minor knee surgery and Zac Seljaas is recovering from a broken foot sustained during the tour of Italy, which he had surgery for. Both should be back by the start of the season.
Yoeli Childs is set to miss the first nine games of the season, serving a suspension by the NCAA after there was a mix up with his paperwork in returning to BYU after declaring himself eligible for the NBA draft.
Sophomore forward Gavin Baxter suffered a possible season-ending shoulder injury last week while battling for a rebound. Pope said he won't be counting on having him back this year.
“It looks like there’s a solid chance we won’t see him until a year from now,” Pope said. “He tore his labrum and he’s still seeing some experts right now. So, we’re going to have to have some guys step up.”