At Baylor, BYU saw the power of Big 12 basketball

BYU loss to No. 14 Baylor showed it is making progress, but is still far off from its ultimate goal.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mark Pope as BYU hosts Cincinnati, NCAA basketball in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.

Waco, Texas • From the top of the hexagonal roof inside Foster Pavilion — Baylor’s new $212 million shrine to college basketball — Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark peered out from the darkness of a suite.

Below him were 7,500 fans hanging on every word of a pregame hype video. A court sparkled with the 2021 national championship logo. A concourse teemed with pictures from the Sweet 16s, Elite Eights and Final Fours that propelled this new gym into existence over the last 21 years.

“This is a burgeoning empire,” the loudspeaker boomed as the video ended and the lights flicked back on.

Now, that empire has a fitting setting — and Yormark was there to survey just what Big 12 basketball has the power to build.

But as he looked down, there was also one more thing on the court: BYU.

Next to the program that had made it — that physically stamped its ascension into college basketball’s elite — was the program desperately trying to get acquainted with its new digs in the Big 12 — both metaphorically and literally.

Baylor guard Jayden Nunn (2) drives past BYU guard Jaxson Robinson (2) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Gareth Patterson)

And the night, an 81-72 BYU loss to Baylor, showed just where this BYU team is at. Coming in ranked No. 18 in the country, the Cougars had made some strides. They’d shown promise. But ultimately, it seems BYU still has a ways to go to match the class of its new conference.

“It is pretty amazing what [Baylor coach Scott Drew] has built here in the last 21 years. From a winning team, to a national championship, to this building,” BYU head coach Mark Pope said.

“... It is one of the beautiful things about this league. We are going to figure this out and grow into it.”

When Pope prepared to enter this league two years ago, he made the difficult decision to tear his program down to the studs and rebuild. His last system — a half-court game that relied on pinpoint execution — was fine. But it didn’t have a high enough ceiling to compete with the country’s best.

So he went young, leaned into analytics and came out with a fast-paced, three-point-heavy system. There were lumps the first year. BYU went 7-9 in the West Coast Conference and had embarrassing defeats to Pepperdine and South Dakota.

But Pope trusted it and brought back the same team. Cut down on turnovers, gain a year of experience and this thing can work, he thought.

And early this season he was proved right. BYU jumped out to an 11-2 start. It surprised San Diego State at home and won the Las Vegas Invitational.

BYU scored 43.7% of its points from behind the arc — the second most in the country. It had just 45% of its points from inside the arc, ranked 328th. No other team in the top 25 gets more than 37% of its points from the three-point line. BYU’s advantage was working.

At the same time, the Cougars went from 309th in turnover percentage to 28th. It had BYU thinking maybe it was ahead of schedule and could compete in the Big 12.

But as conference play began, Pope and the Cougars got their first taste of how tough their new schedule is.

BYU lost at home to fellow newcomers Cincinnati last week, then had 48 hours to prepare for No. 14 Baylor.

On Tuesday night, the Cougars hung in for most of the game. They held a lead until nine minutes left. But the turnovers came back — 14 of them leading to 18 Baylor points. And the defense couldn’t stay disciplined enough to keep up with the Bears’ Big 12 athleticism.

Baylor gashed the on-ball defense of the Cougars in the second half. It got 14 points at the rim. It had kick outs for wide-open threes to shoot 51% from the field. It helped the Bears go from down nine to up 11 in the span of 15 minutes.

“We kind of lost some of the integrity of our shell defensive principles there,” Pope said. “The gaps became a little bit bigger. There were some moments where we lost our very specific game plan for guarding them.”

Beyond the defense, there were times when BYU’s reliance on the three hurt them. It wasn’t as blatant as its loss against Cincinnati — where the Cougars hoisted 46 threes and made just 13 of them. But it came up down the stretch.

When BYU needed a bucket, needed something getting downhill at the rim, it didn’t have the answer.

“There is going to be a little bit of regression,” Pope said of the Big 12. “For the next 18 games we are playing top 25 teams. So it is more of an even playing field.”

For BYU to be in the game at all shows progress. That Pope’s system can work.

But by the end of the game, with Yormark looking on and Pope looking around at the new facility, BYU saw the power of what Big 12 basketball can be.

This is a new world, and the Cougars’ journey through it has just begun.