For BYU Football, the move to the Big 12 means getting out of independence. But what does it mean for men’s basketball?

The Cougars have become top contenders in the West Coast Conference, but will have tougher in-league competition in the Big 12.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University basketball coach Mark Pope, left, poses for a photo alongside BYU football coach Kalani Sitake as they attend the announcement of BYU's acceptance into the Big 12 conference at a press conference in Provo, Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.

BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope has a vision in his head.

Important conference games at the historic Allen Fieldhouse in Kansas.

Fans rushing the court at the Marriott Center after a win over a top-ranked opponent.

The Cougars are gearing up for Gonzaga and the West Coast Conference right now. But soon enough, BYU will find itself in what might be the best basketball conference in the nation right now.

“It doesn’t get any better,” BYU coach Mark Pope said after the Cougars announced their move to the Big 12 last week. “That’s where you want to be and it’s super, super humbling. It’s going to be an unbelievable challenge, but we’re incredibly excited about it.”

On Sept. 10, BYU was officially invited into the Big 12 Conference. Instead of having just top-ranked Gonzaga coming to Provo, the Cougars will get to host annual games with multiple national champions. Of the current members, Kansas has brought home three national titles, while Oklahoma State boasts two championships and Baylor is the reigning national champ.

Since joining the West Coast Conference in 2011, BYU has moved up to be the second-best team in the league — second to powerhouse Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s has proved to be another top contender in the league, having made four of its 10 NCAA Tournament appearances since BYU joined the WCC (2012, 2013, 2017, 2019).

During that period, the Gaels also played in the NIT four times (2014, 2015, 2016, 2018).

Now, the Cougars will enter a conference that regularly sends multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament.

Last season, seven Big 12 teams were ranked in the Top 25 for the majority of the season and made their way to March Madness: Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and West Virginia.

Baylor ended up beating Gonzaga 86-70 to claim the national title, handing the Bulldogs their sole loss of the season.

BYU has some familiarity with some of the current Big 12 teams. The Cougars have played the Jayhawks a handful of times dating back to 1959, most recently falling to Kansas 71-56 at the Maui Invitational in 2019.

Although Texas is set to leave the Big 12 by 2025, the Cougars last played the Longhorns in 2013, in what ended up being a close 86-82 win.

Throughout its time in the WCC, BYU has most played Baylor. The Cougars and Bears played a three-game series in consecutive years, 2011-2013. BYU lost all three of those games.

Other than that, BYU will essentially join the Big 12 with a clean record against its new conference opponents.

Before the Cougars can join the Big 12, however, they will have to play two more seasons in the WCC. And Pope believes current league play will help BYU get ready to make the jump to a Power Five conference.

“The league we’re playing right now is really good,” Pope said. “We’re going to be in this league for the next two years, and it’s really good. Right now, the Big 12 has four teams preseason ranked in the Top 40, the Pac-12 has four teams ranked in the preseason Top 40 and the WCC has four teams ranked in the Top 40 preseason. They’re a great league, so we’re excited about the work that we have in from of us right now, but this move is historic for our program.”

Because football is independent, the entirety of the schedule is made up of whichever teams they choose to play. Basketball doesn’t have that much flexibility. Usually, a good chunk of the non-conference schedule is taken up by tournaments. Add in some in-state contests, like in BYU’s case, and there’s not that much more one can schedule. Still, the Cougars have tried to build the most competitive non-conference schedule possible.

BYU currently plays 16 WCC games. The Big 12 currently plays closer to 20 games.

The number of conference games on the schedule may change once BYU joins the Big 12, along with Houston, Cincinnati and UCF, and/or when Texas and Oklahoma make their departure.

“There’ll be less games that will be free for us to go,” Pope said.

At the end of the day, though, that’s a good problem to have.

Just by being in the Big 12, the Cougars will be able to attract bigger and better talent to fill out their nonconference schedule. Instead of keeping track of teams and having to forecast what games could be Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 2 matches, just by being in a Power Five conference the chance of getting games that will boost BYU’s NCAA resume will go up.

After finishing the last two seasons ranked in the Top 25 and having made a return to the NCAA Tournament, the Cougars will look to keep the momentum going as they prepare to switch over to the Big 12.

“You just think about the parade of teams that will roll through this Marriott Center,” Pope said. “It’s one of the epic arenas in the country and we got to see it in its peak, obviously, against the No. 1 team in the country the last few years in Gonzaga. But now it’s just going to be a game-after-game deal and I’m just so happy for Cougar Nation and BYU fans that make their way into this Marriott Center, because it is going to be really special.”

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