Provo • This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. This wasn’t how the Cougars envisioned ending the season.
At least, it’s not how BYU coach Mark Pope thought it would go.
“I will tell you this — I believe it to be true,” Pope said. “There was nothing that could stop this team this year … the one thing that stopped this team is a pandemic. I do believe that this group was so committed that there was nothing that was going to stop them besides something otherworldly.”
Just as No. 14 BYU (24-8, 13-3 conference) was set to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years, the chance was taken away from them. On Thursday, three days before Selection Sunday, the NCAA Tournament announced the cancellation of the remaining winter championships and upcoming spring championships due to the coronavirus health threat.
“The decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” the organization said in a release.
That news hit hard for the BYU men’s basketball team, which looked to have its best squad in nearly a decade — since the days of Jimmer-mania — and some analysts predicted could make a deep run at the tourney.
In Pope’s first season as head coach at BYU, he had already accumulated more wins than any other first-year coach in program history, but had that first year cut short due to the coronavirus.
“I think we talked about it a lot towards the end of the [regular] season, just about how it can't end,” Pope said. “It just can't end. It's just too special. This group is too close. It's too fun to compete for 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 almost too much to take right now.”
The players were in a team meeting before practice when the news broke, so Pope and his staff were the ones to break it to them.
The announcement led to a locker room full of shocking silence, tears and disbelief. Pope wasn't sure how to console his players, but he knew it wasn't the time for to give a speech about how hard things happen sometimes.
“The only thing I shared with those guys, through all of our tears, was just how much I love them and how grateful I am that they allowed me to be part of this experience that they've had,” Pope said. “I didn't have any wiser words for them than that.”
With no games left to play, the Cougars unknowingly ended their season with the disappointing, one-point loss to Saint Mary’s at the West Coast Conference tournament semifinals. It was a game that saw BYU’s prolific offense uncharacteristically struggle to shoot, particularly in the second half when the Cougars only shot 24% overall.
It was a heartbreaking loss, but wasn’t one that would have affected the Cougars’ seeding much. BYU still went the entire season without losing to an opponent they shouldn’t have lost to — and never lost consecutive games.
However, BYU will not get a chance at a redemption game. But that doesn't mean the season was all for naught.
The Cougars still had a successful season in spite of having to deal with more adversity than most teams could handle.
Having a new coach can be enough for any team to lose its footing, but BYU handled it with easy. Then add in Yoeli Childs' eight-game suspension, transfers and an endless barrage of injuries from preseason all the way through the end of the regular season.
Yet, the Cougars never yielded.
Instead, they went on to have their best season in years with highlights that included senior TJ Haws scoring the game-winning shot against Saint Mary’s before rushing to the hospital with his wife for the birth of his first child. Or how about the starting seniors leading BYU over No. 2 Gonzaga in a sold-out Marriott Center in the final home game of the season?
“It's an extraordinary and humbling thing when young men are willing to give you their trust, and that is a real gift as a coach,” Pope said. “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 unbelievably generous to us as a staff.”
The blow feels exceptionally hard for the seven seniors — Childs, Haws, Jake Toolson, Zac Seljaas, Dalton Nixon, Evan Troy and Taylor Maughan — who didn’t get to end their collegiate career on their terms.
The whole reason Childs was suspended at the start of the season was due to a paperwork snafu after deciding to withdraw from the NBA draft and instead come back to BYU for a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament. And then had to miss an additional four games due to injury.
Haws was the lone remaining Lone Peak 3 member, and only one who actually had a full career at BYU. Toolson graduated from Utah Valley and returned to the place he was least successful to be with a coach that he believed in.
Seljaas came into BYU a 3-point marksman and transformed himself into a utility player who just wanted to help the Cougars in any way possible. Nixon injected fresh energy on the court any time he’d come off the bench and proved to be an essential part of BYU’s defense.
“It's hard for this crew because they have all come back to this, to get to this tournament and to go make something extraordinary happen,” Pope said. “And they've taken the long road. I mean, they've taken a four, five-year journey of disappointment and frustration to finally get here. And that part, it's just hard.”
But regardless of what happened, or in this case didn't get to happen, this year's squad still left their mark at BYU.
“While it is, in a basketball sense and for this team in this locker room, it’s really tragic that they don’t have a chance to finish it — their legacy here at BYU is intact,” Pope said. “… I know BYU fans, I know they’ll remember these young men in terms of the impact they’ve had on the relationships they built with fans this year and the extraordinary accomplishments and things they performed.”