BYU men’s basketball team hones its 'championship game’ chops; Mark Pope hopes it will set tone for season

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Pope takes questions from the media after being announced as BYU's new head basketball coach during a press event at the BYU broadcasting building on Wed. April 10, 2019.

Provo • It has been more than 20 years since Mark Pope won a national championship with the University of Kentucky, but he still remembers every second of it. It’s in his mind forever.

He remembers what happened before the game, the whole game and what happened after. Those are the good moments, he said.

Late Wednesday night, the first-year BYU head coach wanted to share that moment with his team and the 2,737 people that showed up at the Marriott Center for the Cougars’ Midnight Madness festivities.

Pope created a West Coast Conference championship-game scenario for the fans, then gave the crowd an enthusiastic play-by-play of the Cougars coming back from a seven-point deficit with 20 seconds left. It included a steal by Taylor Maughan, a three pointer from the corner by Jake Toolson, a Yoelie Childs recovers defensive rebound and a screen set up for a pick and roll and plus-one from TJ Haws.

The Cougars clinch the lead as time expires, winning the conference championship. And naturally, the crowd ate it up. Students rushed the floor, hugged the players and cheered as confetti rained down.

It was just a sampling of what Pope hopes to deliver as BYU’s coach.

And he believes a team should practice winning, just like shooting free throws and running ladders.

“For all of us to kind of practice that together is important because it's really hard to do,” Pope said. “I want my guys to feel that, I want these fans to feel that and then we have to do the task of actually earning that. And that's super complicated, but it is a nice way to welcome the night.”

The Cougars start the 2019-2020 season Nov. 5, when they host Cal State Fullerton, but will be returning to action this weekend with a closed scrimmage against the Cal Golden Bears.

After a tumultuous offseason, it seems the Cougars are finally getting settled in. And just in time.

Pope is going to look at the scrimmage as a learning experience with no downside.

“I'm really excited because it's either going to give us a lot of confidence or it's going to humble us, and either one of those is a huge win,” Pope said. “I'm just excited to see to go play somebody and kind of see who we are, where we are and how we feel and how we fit together. We'll get at least some part of session that's just the guys that can actually play for us right now.”

Not even during the Tour of Italy did the Cougars play with only what they have available on the roster.

TJ Haws, who had to sit out the start of training camp due to minor knee surgery, is back full-time. However, Zac Seljaas, who broke his foot during the Italy trip, still isn’t back to full capacity.

The senior guard went through a 15-minute shooting workout earlier Wednesday and is expected to start participating in some live practices next week.

Besides Seljaas and sophomore forward Gavin Baxter, who suffered a possible season-ending shoulder injury, the rest of the team is relatively healthy. Blaze Nield is nursing a sprained ankle, Jesse Wade is managing his knee and Yoeli Childs was feeling sick recently, but was set to be back at practice Thursday.

The Cougars also have three transfers, two of whom are waiting to hear back from the NCAA about their waiver appeals. Childs will sit out the first nine games of the season, per his NCAA suspension.

“There's always adversity in the game of basketball and I think we're really excited about where we're at,” Haws said. “We're ready to start playing games and feeling this energy tonight is super fun. We're excited to get out there and play.”

Leading the Cougars, Haws and Childs will get significant playing time, but until Childs is able to return it is most likely that Dalton Nixon will fill in for the 6-foot-8 forward. Once Seljaas’ recovery is complete, he will likely have a primary role as well.

Pope has also talked up UVU transfer guard Jake Toolson — one of his former players — and 6-foot-9 forward Kolby Lee as players that could have an impact this season.

If Pope’s hopeful play-by-play is any indication, Maughan may also have a breakout year.

“I’m more in the mindset of just taking it one day at a time,” Childs said. “It’s really fun to get out here and get the fans hyped and get going, but we understand it’s going to take focus every day to get where we need to get.”

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