BYU men’s basketball focusing on competitiveness through practice

Utah State's Justin Bean, left, and Sam Merrill (5) defend against BYU forward Kolby Lee (40) in the first half during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Over the first week of practice, coach Mark Pope would notice players would arrive to practice early and take the time to get in extra shooting drills, the sound of multiple basketballs being dribbled and shot making its way into his office.

Now, in their second week of two-a-day practices, the pre-practice dribbling has quieted down, but not because guys aren’t getting to the gym early. Instead, the athletes are squeezing in a much needed break before continuing with the second grueling workout of the day.

The second-year coach has been inspired by the new Duke women’s basketball coach, Kara Lawson. The former NBA and Olympic champion gave a talk describing the difference between working hard and competitiveness — and Pope thought it was “genius.”

“I thought it was a really, really profound way to look at the game and how we practice, and so we talked to our team about it — we actually quoted her,” Pope said. “So over the last 10 days, these guys have gotten so hyper competitive.”

As of Monday, Pope told his staff they might need to reel it back a bit because the players may end up killing each other from competing and fighting for every advantage.

But Pope has been impressed by it and what he’s seen from his team so far.

“Hopefully that’ll be a hallmark for this team, is a team that really, really competes,” Pope said. “Compete is a word with a lot of depth, it means a lot of things, but if we can do that, we’re going to be a good team this year.”

Junior forward Kolby Lee said the grind is the same as previous years. However, the focus this time around has been on getting reps because there are a lot of new and younger guys on the roster.

The Cougars are working out new offensive schemes, defensive scheme and figuring out their different looks and options.

The versatility and depth BYU’s current roster boasts has encouraged the team to be more competitive in practices.

“It’s so competitive — every single practice,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of juice with Pope. He’s a heck of a coach and we want to go to battle with this guy every week.”

Utah Valley graduate transfer Brandon Averette may be new to the Cougars, but is familiar with Pope, having started his collegiate career with the coach up the street from BYU.

But through his entire basketball career, high school through college, Averette said he’s never been on a team with this type of “juice.” He couldn’t quite put into words what’s specifically different about the energy Pope brings and how it manifests with this group of players, but he likes it.

“You’ve got a group of guys who’s really rooting for each other every single play,” Averette said. “… There’s no jealousy, we’re just looking to come in and get better every single day. We’ve got a lot of tough guys — tough-nosed guys.”

While the Cougars have yet to finalize the nonconference portion of the schedule (the full schedule should be released in a week or two), Pope hopes he has another part of the team locked down: identity.

Last season, Pope and his Cougars became known for having the “best locker room in America.” That’s still the goal, but Pope has a different team from last year with a lot of new faces.

Still, he hopes to continue the same mentality.

“In terms of the identity, like the core of who we are, I hope that never changes,” Pope said. “Just in terms of like ... being relentless and everything that means to us, this tenacious effort to get better every single day — it’s like a DNA of us. And working every day towards the best of America. That’s our DNA, that’s who we are.”

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