After breakthrough first season, BYU basketball coach Mark Pope must rebuild — but the cupboard is hardly bare

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Head coach for BYU Mark Pope talks with his team during a time out as BYU takes on UNLV in men's NCAA basketball at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Sat. Dec. 7, 2019.

Provo • It’s time for BYU to start putting the 2019-20 season behind it and start looking at the future.

While the NCAA considered releasing the 2020 Tournament bracket at one point, the organization decided against it on what would have been Selection Sunday. And just like that, the season came to an official, without-a-doubt end.

For No. 14 BYU, just like with many other schools that were having a great season, the Cougars will never even get to see where they (most likely) would have landed in the tournament. Of course, only 13 out of 32 conferences awarded automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament, while the other 19 leagues either stopped their brackets mid-tournament or didn’t begin at all.

“Players and coaches want to see their school name on the bracket,” NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “Members of the media want to dissect matchups. Bracketologists want to compare the work of the committees versus what they’ve predicted. Fans are curious for those same reasons. All of us want something to fill the void we’re feeling. However, anything less than a credible process is inconsistent with the tradition of the NCAA basketball championships.”

Gavitt also explained that brackets based on hypotheticals can't substitute for a complete selection, seeding and bracketing process.

“There will always be an asterisk next to the 2020 NCAA men's and women's basketball championships regardless if brackets are released,” Gavitt said. “There is not an authentic way to produce tournament fields and brackets at this point without speculating and that isn't fair to teams that would be positively or negatively impacted by manufacturing March Madness.”

But even without the NCAA Tournament, BYU had the best season — and squad — in nearly a decade.

The Cougars went 24-8 and 13-3 in West Coast Conference play.

BYU had the best 3-point shooting percentage in the nation (42.20%) and averaged 10.4 3-pointers made per game (fourth). The Cougars were also second in assist turnover ration (1.57), fourth in total assists (556) and fifth in assists per game (17.4).

And BYU’s offensive efficiency ranked third (1.108), behind Gonzaga and Dayton.

The Cougars' success stemmed from a senior-heavy class. Of the 79.6 points BYU averaged per game, the seven seniors were responsible for 66.4 points.

Yoeli Childs led with 22.2 points, while grad transfer Jake Toolson added 15.2 points and TJ Haws averaged 14.0 points. Off the bench, Dalton Nixon and Zac Seljaas contributed 7.5 and 6.6 points, respectively.

And even Evan Troy and Taylor Maughan, who worked predominantly on the scout team, added a bit. Troy averaged 0.5 points and Maughan averaged 0.4 points.

It will definitely be a challenge to replace them while making sure to keep up the same level of production.

So far, the NCAA has only announced that it will grant relief for a season of eligibility for spring athletes, but could still make a similar decision for the winter sports that hadn’t fully finished yet.

“I do suspect that I have a large group of seniors that have fought so hard for this, and they still have a boatload of fight in them,” BYU coach Mark Pope said last week. “If the NCAA saw fit to grant them another shot at this, which seems potentially like it the only just or fair thing to do, then I think we’d have some guys who are really, really, really excited about that.”

Even if the same type of relief isn't granted for winter athletes, the Cougars should still be solid behind Alex Barcello, Kolby Lee, Gavin Baxter and Connor Harding.

Barcello, who transferred from Arizona and was granted a waiver to immediately start playing for the Cougars, started in all 32 games while shooting 49.3% overall and 48.6% from beyond the arc while averaging 9.3 points.

Lee proved to be helpful down low, being almost unbeatable when it came to his quicks and making 62.5% of his shots. While Harding quickly came out a 3-point shooter — with his signature shot coming from the corner — he had to change up his game a bit during the second half of the season as he dealt with a lingering knee injury.

On the note of injury, Baxter came back to the lineup as soon as possible after having shoulder surgery for a torn labrum sustained in a preseason practice. While he wasn’t able to match his freshman season break-out performance, his selflessness added another layer to a team that was already willing to help each other out in any way possible.

While Pope managed to have incredible success in his first season at BYU, it will be interesting to see how he’s able to adjust to the sudden end of this season and move on to the next.

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