‘It’s got to be fun’: BYU’s basketball team focusing on grins and wins as Cougars open the 2021-22 season

Top 25 finish, NCAA Tournament appearance and joy on the court among coach Mark Pope’s goals

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University basketball team head coach Mark Pope, left, shares a laugh with player Te'Jon Lucas, director of operations Bobby Jorodyski and player Alex Barcello at the BYU Broadcasting Center, Oct. 21, 2021.

If Alex Barcello could give Mark Pope a letter grade on how much joy the BYU men’s basketball coach brought into the gym last season, he’d give a D-.

The coach is looking to improve that now.

As a new basketball season approaches in Provo — with the Cougars hosting Cleveland State at the Marriott Center in both teams’ opener Tuesday at 8 p.m. — Pope is putting an emphasis on bringing more fun to workouts and practices.

“It’s got to be fun,” Pope said. “We have to bring joy in this gym. It’s been a hallmark of our program since we’ve been together as a staff. We did a poor job of that last year, so it’s something we’re really focusing on. … It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to push them like crazy, but it should be fun.”

The change in atmosphere is partially due to what has unfolded over the past year and a half with the pandemic.

The Marriott Center is far and away the biggest basketball arena in the West Coast Conference, with a capacity of 19,000. (The next biggest arena is the Alex G. Spanos Center at Pacific, with a capacity of 6,150.)

Senior Gideon George made his official visit to BYU when the Cougars took down No. 2 Gonzaga in the last home game of the 2019-20 season. Fans stormed the court in what was the biggest win in Provo in years.

In one word, George described the scene as “epic.”

But last season, the Cougars were in charge of creating their own juice, playing in front of empty or mostly empty seats in the Marriott Center.

“I’ve never seen that type of atmosphere in my life before. So I was like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ll be hoping to see,’” George said, recalling that epic win over the Zags. “But with the pandemic, everything was empty.”

The pandemic forced teams to isolate in hotel rooms on away games and at tournaments, including at the NCAA Tournament. COVID-19 precautions took a toll on just about everyone, in one way or another, but also caused major changes to college sports.

The WCC was hit hard early in conference play — particularly when it came to the California teams — with cancelations and postponements.

Compared to where the team was a year ago, though, sophomore Caleb Lohner believes the team’s mental strength is a lot stronger now.

“When you’re having joy in the gym and you’re having fun,” Lohner said. “Nothing else should matter. At the end of the day, if you’re actually having fun with your team and you’re actually getting better while doing it, I think that brings a certain peace to the team and players just to know ‘hey, we’re having fun. We have joy in the team — we’re going to be a good basketball team.’”

Having joy in the gym is one of BYU’s main focus points this year as the Pope enters his third year at the helm and the Cougars are looking for a third consecutive Top 25 finish and back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.

The staff has actually created a word wall with words and sayings the team believes in and wants to focus on this year, including “on time,” “relentless,” “get better every day” and more. Barcello said there may be 20 different phrases on there.

“Coach is always bringing us different challenges, how we can kind of focus on and follow through with that word wall that he put up there for us and the coaching staff put up there,” Barcello said. “But I would say following those in attitude [and] effort every day. How good of a teammate are you? Are you bringing 100% effort when you step out on the floor?”

Although the majority of the nation has opened back up and gotten a sense of normalcy as the pandemic continues, the Cougars recently had a scrimmage where they were faced with a new dilemma they didn’t deal with last season.

Just days before the scrimmage, Pope said the staff learned that only vaccinated players could attend and play. Although a staff member said the majority of the team is fully vaccinated, the Cougars had to leave part of their roster behind due to the vaccination rule.

“We spent zero time bemoaning the fact that it wasn’t our full team,” Pope said. “We just went, ‘Hey, this is how we move on. Now we’re going to go find a way to win this way.’ I think we just got a lot of practice at doing that. So I think we just become better because of the practice. The other thing I learned is, through this deal, this joy in the gym culture is really huge for me.”

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