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BYU Hoops Mailbag: State of the Program, Recruiting, Big 12, and More

Northern Iowa v Brigham Young Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

BYU Hoops is in a tough stretch. A 7-game winning streak moved them to 12-5 and seemingly gave the team some momentum for WCC play, but 4 losses in the last 6 games and a sweep in the Bay Area last week leave the team in a down spot.

Had a lot of questions this week, so try to answer as many as I could. Thanks as always for the support!

Is this year indicative of Pope’s coaching overall, or not?

Received a lot of questions around Mark Pope and the state of the program, so allow me to go on a monologue and pontificate for a bit about some of my general thoughts around where the program is now.

Mark Pope is in his eighth year as the head coach of a D1 program —four years at UVU and now in year four at BYU. He took over a UVU program that was rated 321 in KenPom when he arrived and had them right around 100 in each of his last two years. He never made the NCAA Tournament at UVU, but they made measured progress with him at the helm.

Pope’s BYU teams have seen an opposite trajectory with lower KenPom rankings in each season, but it is impressive what he accomplished his first two seasons. Pope took over a program that had missed the NCAA Tournament 4 consecutive years and finished the 2018-2019 season with a 80-57 loss to to USD in the WCC quarterfinals and no NCAA or NIT appearance. Dave Rose’s final recruiting class included the 3 below players, and Nate Hansen was the lone missionary in the pipeline when Pope arrived.

Shengzhe Li — ended up as a team manager at Oregon State

Nate Hansen — served mission and played one season at BYU, transferred after last season and did not end up at another program

Bernardo Da Silva — ended up at Hawaii; has had injury issues but has carved out a nice role with the Rainbow Warriors

In his first season, Pope brought in Jake Toolson, Alex Barcello, and Richard Harward and Wyatt Lowell (both had to sit due to transfer rules). Yoeli Childs largely came back because he didn’t receive the feedback he wanted from NBA scouts, but Pope also definitely had a role in recruiting him. That senior laden squad of new additions and long-time BYU players was one of the best BYU teams in the last two decades, but will unfortunately always remain a what if due to COVID cancelling the NCAA Tournament.

Year two saw Pope bring in Matt Haarms — who was heavily pursued by Kentucky and several other high major programs — and UVU transfer Brandon Averette that teamed with Alex Barcello to get a six seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Year three had Barcello without much help, and year four now has some promising young pieces but is a team that turns the ball over a ton and cant’s shoot consistently.

To evaluate Mark Pope, it is important to understand who he is. Pope hates losing and wants to be at the top. He doesn’t just dislike losing like every coach does — he ABHORS losing. That trait served Pope incredibly well as a player, assistant, and has its benefits as a head coach. When Pope transferred from Washington as a player, he could have gone to about any college and got a ton of playing time. He went to Kentucky, not necessarily because he would get the most playing time, but because he wanted to be coached at the highest level and win a national championship, which he did in 1996.

Pope stuck around in the NBA not because he was the most talented, but because he outworked all the other fringe players and found his niche to stick around.

As an assistant, Pope’s relentless desire to be the best allowed him to climb the ladder and find his way to head coaching jobs. Even outside of basketball, Mark Pope was accepted to Columbia medical school and was on track to be a surgeon. He wanted to be a surgeon in New York City at the highest level.

As a head coach, the benefits are that Pope is willing outwork anyone on the recruiting trail. This past summer he travelled to Mexico, Turkey, and was the only D1 coach to go to Madagascar to watch the FIBA U18 finals.

He has a relentless desire to be the best, which is why he isn’t a BYU lifer. If he can get another job that will allow him to accomplish more, he will take it.

Going back to the abhorrence for losing. That has served Pope well in some facets as a head coach, but as a people manager and head of a basketball program, that can wear on people. When not channeled the right way, that can wear on assistants, support staff, and even trickle down to the players. BYU has done more losing than anyone in the program has wanted since the middle of last season, and the high bar Pope has for himself extends to those around him can be counterproductive to the program culture if Pope doesn’t communicate those standards healthily or productively.

There will likely be a lot of losing in the Big 12 next year — can Pope handle that to ensure the bottom doesn’t fall out on things and BYU is a place that coaches and players enjoy? Winning is the cure all to everything, but that may not come for awhile.

I think Mark Pope can succeed at BYU, and BYU has some things in its favor. BYU will now fully be able to recruit as a Big 12 member, something they’ve never been able to do. The Royal Blue collective is a real NIL collective, and if they support hoops then BYU can compete in the NIL space. And third, BYU has a non-LDS, racial minority assistant in Kahil Fennel to assist on the recruiting trail. Fennell joined BYU last year after most of the top portal players had gone elsewhere.

Pope also needs to improve on his evaluations when missing on top guys. Other programs don’t recruit top players, but the lower tier players they add do well. Even just up the street at UVU, Mark Madsen landed Fardaws Aimaq and Aziz Bandaogo. Those players did very little at their prior stops, but were home runs under Madsen.

Pope spotted Barcello and added Haarms over several big name programs, but he’s missed on other A/B+ players and his plan C guys haven’t delivered enough.

Pope is the same guy who landed Collin Chandler, the highest rated recruit BYU has ever landed. Being in the Big 12 will help BYU’s recruiting, and this will be the first offseason we get to evaluate if that makes a material difference.

Pope has shown that he can succeed at BYU, but is he patient enough to build this young core, be comfortable with losing as long as guys are developing, and create a culture that coaches and players enjoy being in in spite of losing? Best case scenario for BYU is that Pope and coaches bring in a couple rock star transfers that mesh with the current core and turn things around to be a respectable Big 12 team year one. 2024 has some high level players (more on that later) and Collin Chandler is scheduled to return home from his mission before that season, so if Pope and BYU fans are patient there could be dividends down the road.

Pope has shown that he can recruit impact players, and he will fully be under the microscope to do that this offseason while developing the current young guys.

Put yourself in the shoes of Coach Pope, what moves are you making roster or coaching-wise this off-season heading into next year?

As of today, BYU has one scholarship available for next season. Rudi Williams and Gideon George are the lone seniors, and 2021 signee Jake Wahlin returns home from his mission. Jake Wahlin was 6-foot-7, 190 pounds before his mission, but Lithuania has been good to him. One person close to Jake told me that he recently measured at 6-foot-9 without shoes and weighed in at 225 pounds. Wahlin likely won’t be a feature player at BYU, but he can absolutely be a very high level role player with his versatility at the four spot. He should be able to play year one and gives BYU frontcourt versatility.

For the roster construction, Pope should not try to blow up the roster. Ideally, you have just 1-2 guys transfer out and keep your main young core in place of Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, Fouss, Atiki, Jaxson Robinson, and others. If BYU can keep the main core together and have three scholarships to play with to add the right transfers, that is a good mix of keeping continuity and adding talent. BYU is finally getting in the rhythm of having the RMs Pope recruited returning to the program, which is something BYU didn’t have the first three seasons under Pope due to the delay of guys actually getting home.

I mentioned this to you in Discord already but I’d love to hear an update on the 2024 class (Diallo, Brody, Davis) and where we stand with those guys.

The 2024 recruiting class is massive for BYU. 2023 I don’t anticipate BYU adding high school players. They already have Jake Wahlin who is a defacto 2023 member, and there aren’t many guys out there that make sense to add. BYU recruited Keanu Dawes who went to Rice and Cedric Lath who is at Houston, but the local and LDS recruiting scene is pretty bare. Dawes was probably the top LDS player in the 2023 class.

2024 is loaded. BYU has offered local guys Malick Diallo, Isaac Davis, and Brody Kozlowski. All three are 4-star guys and there is a chance none of them go on missions. Diallo is not LDS and the mission plans for the other two are up in the air.

Diallo is a 6-foot-10 big man who I believe has the most star potential. Diallo is a native of Mali and is close with fellow Mali native Fousseyni Traore. He has been to several games and is close to BYU’s staff. He’s a very versatile, skilled big that can score at all three levels and defend the paint. BYU is going against some big schools, but they have recruited him as hard as anyone.

Isaac Davis is a 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7 four man (depending on who you ask) and has elite, explosive athleticism. Schools like Oklahoma have offered, but Isaac has visited BYU and is familiar with the program and coaches.

I spoke with Brody Kozlowski recently after his BYU offer, and he is a BYU legacy kid who is a great shooter and developed into an outstanding rebounder.

BYU has a legitimate shot to land all three, but the summer and fall recruiting cycle will be huge for BYU to remain diligent as these guys get more eyes on them during the AAU circuit and begin taking official visits.

One other 2024 player I’m keeping an eye on is Wasatch Academy guard Jeremiah Johnson. Johnson has offers from several high-major schools, but coaches have been recruiting him for several months now. Johnson is from Big 12 country in Oklahoma, and BYU has the advantage of having him in their backyard right now. He’s one I’m keeping an eye on these next several months.

Collin Chandler is also scheduled to return home from his mission before the 2024 class, so the 2024 season could prove to be a huge talent infusion into the program.

What should be the goal for this team for the rest of the season?

High level, BYU should aim to get to the NIT while continuing to play its younger players. Dallin Hall has been thrown into the fire right off his mission, but he needs to reps and continue to learn as BYU’s lead point guard. All the bumps he takes this year will pay dividends as BYU faces much stiffer competition next year. I also want to see Richie Saunders in the rotation more and given sets in the offense where he can take on a larger role. BYU’s not going to make the tournament this year without a miracle WCC Tournament run, so I hope Pope continues to ride it out with the youngest guys that will be around for multiple years.

If BYU can pick up a few nice wins along the way to get them into the NIT, I think that would be something to build on for a young team heading into the offseason.

What’s the best case scenario for BYU hoops in year 1 of the BIG 12 era, especially with the STACKED league that awaits? Why did the WCC era prove to be a great hindrance to the overall progress of the BYU hoops, as they never won a league or tournament title in 12 seasons there.

If you’re reading this you already know, but the Big 12 is a gauntlet. Even the bottom teams are really good, and every night is an absolute meat grinder. There will be no layups. In year one (and potentially beyond), BYU may be the layup for most teams!

As far as expectations, I think the floor in Big 12 play is 3-15 and the best case scenario is 8-10 year one. Even if BYU is the least talented team year one, the Marriott Center will be so amped up in January that I think BYU will be able to steal a couple games based on that alone. I don’t see 8-10 year one, but at least a 7-11 mark in conference play could have BYU in the bubble conversation depending on how BYU performs outside of conference. In year one I see closer to 3 conference wins than 8.