Now that college basketball has a start date, BYU men’s coach Mark Pope hopes to build as difficult a schedule as he can

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

With so many unknowns still up in the air, BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope is pretty honest in saying he doesn’t know much about the contours of the upcoming season. There has been a shortage of specifics. But on Wednesday, the second-year coach, along with coaches and teams throughout the nation, did learn something: College basketball is back on Nov. 25.

The NCAA’s decision, which has been awaited for months, delays the 2020-2021 season by only two weeks. However, no exhibition games or closed scrimmages will be allowed before that date.

Teams will be able to begin preseason practice on Oct. 14 and can conduct a maximum of 30 practices before the start of the season.

“I think we’re really happy to have a start date,” Pope said. “I think probably more importantly for us right now is that we have some guidance in terms of practices for the next six and eight weeks.”

While the Cougars' nonconference schedule will have to be worked out, Pope has a plan. He wants to play the most difficult slate possible.

Pope believes he has a good team, possibly a great team, but the only way to continue to improve is to play against the best competition.

“I think the biggest pressure we’re feeling right now is we just want to play the hardest schedule we can possibly play,” Pope said Thursday in a Zoom call with reporters. “We want to play the best teams we can possibly play. If that means we’re flying to Florida and New York and it’s in a safe manner to play games, we’ll do it. If it means we can do it by driving down the freeway, we’ll do it.”

Speaking of driving down the freeway, Pope said efforts are still afoot to play a BYU-Utah game as part of any nonconference schedule — the Utes are scheduled to come to Provo this year — but that everything comes down to how the Pac-12 decides to proceed.

Either way, the schedule isn’t the only part of the season the Cougars will need to rework.

BYU, which finished last season ranked 18th in the AP Top 25 and had a 24-8 record before the season ended early due to the pandemic, saw a drastic turnover in its roster.

The Cougars graduated standouts Yoeli Childs, TJ Haws and Jake Toolson, along with key reserves Zac Seljaas and Dalton Nixon. But through the unique offseason, BYU has added a strong contingent of transfers with Matt Harms (Purdue), Gideon George (New Mexico Junior College), Spencer Johnson (Salt Lake Community College) and Brandon Averette (Utah Valley).

Then there’s also freshman Caleb Lohner from Wasatch Academy, a late roster addition after he asked Utah basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak to release him from his commitment to the Utes.

A year ago, due to injuries and a suspension, the Cougars struggled with depth going into the season. Now, it seems the team finds itself in an opposite situation.

“We have a unique opportunity also as a staff with a really interesting roster,” Pope said. “It’s a roster that our young staff has never had before in terms of some of the things we have, we have really, really extraordinary length in our front line. And in our backcourt, we have some athleticism and quickness. Even though we are diminutively sized in the backcourt, [we have] some explosiveness that we haven’t had also.”

With teams still waiting on individual conferences to make their own decision on how to proceed amid the pandemic, and with case numbers continuing to explode in Utah, particularly in the Provo-Orem area, Pope will continue to focus on what he can control: having one of the best locker rooms in the nation.

“I hope it’s something that becomes a core of who we are,” Pope said. “It’s very aspirational, obviously. And it’s really fun because I don’t know that there’s any, you know, with all these genius analytics guys, there’s been nobody to formulate an algorithm to judge the best locker room in America, which means I can just claim it whenever I want. But it really is a key to who we are and what we should do.”