For a lot of people, it can take a year or two to really ease into a new job. For Mark Pope, he’s still settling in.
While still harboring success, the BYU men’s basketball head coach hasn’t had an easy first two years at the helm, largely in part because of the pandemic. But it seems like college sports, while still taking precautions, are heading back to their pre-COVID days sooner rather than later.
So, Pope may finally get his feet fully under him.
“I wouldn’t trade these two years for anything — it’s been incredible,” Pope said. “What these young men have done has been historic even by BYU standards.”
In his first two years as BYU’s men’s basketball coach, Pope put up consecutive 20-win seasons. His 24 wins in the 2019-20 season were the most wins ever by a first-year coach at BYU. Then, let’s not forget the Cougars were headed to the NCAA Tournament in 2020 when the season was canceled due to the pandemic, but Pope still eventually got BYU back in March Madness this last season.
But there was one huge void the pandemic forced that affected Pope: interactions with fans.
Before his first season even started, Pope brought back an old tradition as a way to include fans — Midnight Madness. The then-first year coach ended the event by narrating a last-second game-winning scenario and having fans rush the court to celebrate.
It set the stage for what expectations Pope had for the Cougars. And they lived up to it.
In the last home game of the 2019-20 season, BYU pulled off what was considered nearly impossible and beat then-No. 2 Gonzaga.
None of those fan interactions were possible this past season. In fact, the Cougars played in an empty Marriott Center for most of the 2020-21 season.
“[Cubby’s] was just this incredible bonding experience,” Pope said. “And last year was different. We had these incredible opportunities to build relationships with some special people like our Dunk on Cancer families. Because it was pared down to such small numbers, the relationships were way more intimate. The bookend of kind of extremes, I think, is just super interesting.”
There was also a big contrast in rosters throughout Pope’s first two seasons.
Pope inherited plenty of talent from Dave Rose (like Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws), but also brought in a handful of transfers (most notably Jake Toolson and Alex Barcello). It led to an experience-heavy team. But when the postseason was called off, BYU said goodbye to seven seniors who didn’t get to fulfill their goal of returning to the NCAA tourney. Of those seven seniors, three were starters and two were key reserves.
Suddenly, Pope was back to the drawing board. How would he be able to re-create the magic of his first season the next year?
Easy. Pope hit the transfer portal strong and was even able to get Caleb Lohner to come to BYU instead of Utah, where he had already signed his national letter of intent to play.
The former NBA player brought in big man Matt Haarms from Purdue, Brandon Averette from Utah Valley, Gideon George from New Mexico Junior College and Spencer Johnson from Salt Lake Community College.
With the addition of the transfers and freshmen, it took Pope a while to figure out his rotation, causing the second-year coach to tweak the starting lineup continuously in the first half of the season.
Soon enough, he found what worked — but it cost him.
Shortly after the season ended, four Cougars entered the transfer portal. While surprising, it’s not too off what has been happening around the country.
While the players didn’t agree with how much they got played — or didn’t — the drastic change of minutes was more evident with Connor Harding and Kolby Lee.
Harding started a dozen games at the start of the season, but saw his minutes cut as the season wore on. Lee started in 15 games before he was replaced by Lohner and ended up averaging just 10 minutes a game — a huge cut from the 17.3 minutes he averaged a season prior.
Harding and Lee, whose wives both play for the BYU women’s basketball team, will now play for Utah State and Dixie State, respectively.
However, the decision by the four players didn’t surprise Pope, who said he was having conversations with his players throughout the season.
“There’s a 100 different reasons why guys, what they want, might change over the course of time or why different guys might want different things,” Pope said. “And I do think it’s a really positive thing for individual players to have the freedom to go chase what they really want. I also think it’s a really, really incredibly healthy thing for a locker room for guys that just find themselves in a space where they’re just like I want something different than what’s here. I think it’s healthy for both sides.”
With the loss of those four players, plus the announcements from Haarms and Averette that they’re not coming back for another season (Barcello has yet to announce his decision), it may look like Pope is in a similar situation as he was a year ago.
But he’s not.
Before Wednesday, BYU hadn’t scooped up anyone from the transfer portal. Why? Because they don’t need to.
Pope believes he has enough talent with the players he has returning, the incoming freshmen and the returning missionaries he’ll get soon. He’s still keeping an eye on the transfer portal, of course, but is being selective with who — if anyone — he gets.
That selectivity led to the addition of a guard to the team.
On Wednesday, Te’Jon Lucas announced his commitment to BYU. The Wisconsin transfer averaged 14.9 points, 5.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals on 39% shooting from the field and 28% from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-2 guard is coming to Provo as a sixth-year Provo with one year of eligibility left.
“We have to move the needle in a huge way and we’re only doing it with one or two spots,” Pope said. “We got really, really far down the road with more players than I’d like to talk about where, either on their end or our end, we got to a point where it’s like ‘I’m just not sure that this is going to move the needle for us.’”
There’s also a lot of expectations on the Cougars to be able to continue the momentum they’ve built over the last two seasons.
For just the second time in the last 40 years, BYU finished the last two consecutive seasons with a top 25 national ranking. Although the Cougars finally made it back to the NCAA Tournament this year, they got knocked out by UCLA in the first round. Now, they need a tourney win.
“We’re working on that right now,” Pope said. “I do think these players have set an incredibly high standard here. And interesting enough, I think the players that are here right now are unsatisfied with the standard that they’ve set. So, they’re hungry. They’re pretty hungry, and they’re pretty focused. They have a pretty clear sense of what they want and what they want to accomplish. We’ll see if we can do it, but we definitely have a locker room right now that is full of guys that are super, super hungry to try and keep growing.”