BYU’s season may have come to an end Monday night with a semifinal loss to Saint Mary’s in the WCC Tournament. The loss embodied BYU’s 2022-2023 season in a lot of ways — good effort from the guys, didn’t quit, but ultimately not quite enough talent to pull out the win.
BYU will wait and see until Sunday evening if they get an NIT bid, but as of now they are likely on the outside looking in. Mutliple one seeds have already lost in their conference tourneys, meaning they get NIT auto-bids and trim the number of at-large bids. The NIT committee isn’t as robust as the NCAA Selection committee and a surprise team or two gets in every year, so that is what BYU is counting on. If BYU doesn’t get in the NIT, sources have told me they wouldn’t accept a CBI or other lower tourney bid and instead just head into the offseason.
The Numbers Behind Mark Pope’s First Four Seasons
Pope took over a BYU team that had missed the NCAA Tournament four consecutive years, the longest drought since BYU missed five consecutive tourneys from 1996 through 2000. Below are the KenPom rankings from BYU’s last 8 years, Rose’s last four and Pope’s first four.
2020 (Pope Year One): 13
2023: 75* — this will fluctuate the next month based on if BYU plays in the NIT and how BYU’s opponents perform.
Pope’s first two years were great. He took some talented pieces from Rose and added impact transfers Jake Toolson and Alex Barcello to finish with BYU’s highest KenPom ranking since Jimmer’s senior year when BYU finished 12. He built on that in his second season with a 6 six seed and a first round loss to eventual Final Four team UCLA.
The downward trend is no doubt concerning — while it is unreasonable to expect BYU to be a top 20 team every year, Pope’s teams have gotten worse every season. I think some of those things are part of the macro BYU environment which are out of BYU’s control, and others are things that Pope has missed on and needs to correct. I will outline some of those things below.
The LDS Basketball Talent Pool
The LDS basketball talent pool isn’t nearly as good as it was, say, 7-10 years ago. Between 2013-2017, some of the top guys included Jabari Parker, Frank Jackson, Eric Mika, TJ Haws, Nick Emery, Sam Merrill, Jake Toolson, Elijah Bryant, Yoeli Childs, Gavin Baxter, Payton Dastrup, and Branden Carlson. Five of those players — Jabari, Frank Jackson, Mika, Merrill, and Bryant — all played in the NBA. Some players were highly regarded out of high school, and others like Sam Merrill, Elijah Bryant, and Jake Toolson developed as they got into their college careers.
Since Mark Pope joined BYU, the level of LDS talent isn’t the same. Collin Chandler is really elite and the highest rated recruit BYU has signed in the ratings era. Caleb Lohner was a highly rated recruit. Richie Saunders and Dallin Hall were solid three stars. Tanner Toolson was Mr. Basketball in the state of Washington. Jaxson Kohler went to Michigan State as a 4-Star kid and the biggest LDS kid BYU has missed on. Keanu Dawes was the highest rated LDS kid from the 2023 class, but elected to stay in Texas and go to Rice over several other P6 offers.
BYU has missed on guys like Kohler and Dawes, but overall BYU has recruited the LDS base pretty well. The problem is there isn’t nearly as many high-end caliber D1 LDS kids and the ones BYU is getting are mission bound, so it takes two years for them to even get in the program.
Without as many LDS kids, Pope has had to fill more spots in the roster via the transfer portal. He’s got non-LDS freshmen like Fouss and Atiki, but overall not many non-LDS kids are very interested in coming to BYU out of high school. The better bet in most cases is to get a transfer that is a little more mature and cares more about playing time.
What’s worse for BYU is that many of the top LDS players are at other schools. I wrote last month about what an All-LDS team would look like. Three of the best players — Tolu Smith, Steven Ashworth, and Dawson Baker — were all part of the 2018 recruiting class when Dave Rose was at BYU. None of them were highly rated prospects, so I don’t necessarily blame BYU for not going after them, but having those three guys at BYU would have made a world of difference. Tolu Smith was First Team All-SEC, Steven Ashworth was First Team All-MWC, and Dawson Baker was Second Team All-Big West.
Future classes have some good LDS/local recruits and BYU is in a good position for many of them. BYU has offered 2024 guys Malick Diallo, Brody Kozlowski, and Isaac Davis and has a real shot to land all three. All three are 4-Star guys, and BYU has persistently recruited them for over a year.
Pope has had a mixed bag with the transfer portal, which brings me to my next point.
Mark Pope’s Talent Evaluation and Player Development
Below are the scholarship transfer players Pope has brought in to BYU.
Jake Toolson — UVU
Richard Harward — UVU
Wyatt Lowell — UVU
Alex Barcello — Arizona
Brandon Averette — Oklahoma State, UVU
Matt Haarms — Purdue
Te’Jon Lucas — Milwaukee
Seneca Knight — San Jose State
Rudi Williams — Kansas State, Coastal Carolina
Jaxson Robinson — Texas A&M, Arkansas
Noah Waterman — Detroit Mercy
Toolson and Barcello were obvious home runs. All-Conference players and two of the best shooters in BYU history. Haarms was a huge win because he was such a highly sought after recruit, but he was also All-Conference and DPOY. Averette was solid as an All-Conference players.
The other players are a mixed bag. Harward was solid but missed the last season due to injury. Lowell was WAC Freshman of the Year under Pope, but an Achilles injury derailed his career. Lucas was solid and Knight had his moments, but overall both didn’t meet expectations. Rudi Williams had a nice season, but BYU needed him to be an All-Conference player. Waterman was disappointing after being such a good shooter at Detroit Mercy, and Robinson looks like a good addition as a starter for the next couple seasons.
Pope has taken some big swings in the portal and ultimately missed. BYU was firmly in the mix for guys like Antoine Davis, Izaiah Brockington, Cam Shelton, Jordan Goldwire, and several others but couldn’t seal the deal.
BYU’s plan B and C guys the last two seasons haven’t worked out well enough. BYU got All-Conference guys the first two years from the portal, but none of the additions the last two years have been All-Conference. There have been some solid players, but not enough true difference makers.
This is where I think Pope can improve. He goes after all the top guys and shoots for the moon, but BYU’s talent evaluation can improve when they move on to the plan B and C players. Mark Madsen, for example, has done a nice job of that at UVU of this.
BYU will have two things going for it this next portal cycle: The Big 12 and Kahil Fennell. The 12 may have got some of those big players over the hump in the past, and it will no doubt help moving forward. 70+ other schools are also P6, so it’s not the end all be all. For Fennell, this will be his first full offseason recruiting in the portal for BYU. Having a non-LDS, racial minority on the staff will help recruiting.
As far as player development, Pope has also had a mixed bag. He developed Toolson and many other players at UVU, and turned Alex Barcello into one of the top 40 or so players in BYU history. He took an under-recruited Fousseyni Traore and turned him into one of the best big man out West. Fouss didn’t make as big of a leap some hoped for this season, but he did improve and was hampered by injuries this last offseason.
Forcing out Connor Harding and essentially trading him for Seneca Knight was a mistake — Harding had a nice last season at UVU and was a good player for BYU. Having players like Harding, Zac Seljaas, Dalton Nixon, etc as key role players will always be key for BYU. BYU will need to expand its recruiting base, but having those LDS guys as key role players will always be important.
Will Pope be at BYU next season?
Mark Pope will not be fired. BYU had a disappointing year, but he’s had good success at BYU at this last team was still top 75 nationally (out of 363 D1 teams). This isn’t a Louisville situation where they finished 4-27.
However, I would not be surprised if Pope sniffs around and takes calls from other schools. Why would he do that? First off, I believe Pope likes BYU and wants the best for the program. I don’t think he takes for granted that BYU has a passionate fanbase that was top 15 in attendance this year despite a mediocre season. That is a real asset in recruiting and for actual games. A big reason Collin Chandler chose BYU over Utah is because BYU fans actually care about and show up for hoops.
However, Pope is wired to be the absolute best he can. He likes BYU and wants to program and university to succeed, but he didn’t grow up a fan like Kalani Sitake did. If another job presents itself that Pope thinks he can do more, I believe he would consider that. BYU has a lot of benefits working for it, but there also challenges that are unique to BYU. Pope could also see a lot of losing for BYU on the horizon in the Big 12 and may want to get out before his resume is blemished further.
Pope will outwork anyone on the recruiting trail, and in the back of his mind I believe he believes he would’ve got certain recruits if he was at another school. Fredrick King went to Creighton this last offseason. Pope went on a plane to see him in Mexico. He was going to get on a plane to the Bahamas to visit King when he found out King committed to Creighton. He outworked Creighton for King, but King still went to Omaha. Creighton is a great program, so maybe it wouldn’t matter if Pope was somewhere else. But, Creighton (and virtually any other school recruiting versus BYU) will negative recruit BYU like crazy, whether it is the honor code or BYU’s race relations and racial history. Recruits listen to that stuff. And BYU has added non-LDS, black players, but there are some that stopped considering BYU because of those things. It’s a reality BYU will always have.
In my opinion, building a roster at BYU in hoops is more difficult than football. Football has a larger built-in recruiting base with Polynesians, and lately there have been better LDS football players. For non-LDS players in football, they have 100+ other teammates they can rely on to have a community. In basketball, non-LDS players can feel more isolated. You only have 15 other teammates, and 6 of them could be married. It can be a lot more lonely for those players at BYU.
Pope (or any other coach) has to deal with those things at BYU. If Washington opened, for example, I believe Pope would pursue that. He grew up in the Seattle area and went to UW for two years and left on good terms. Seattle has a strong high school basketball tradition. The issue for Pope is that he isn’t nearly the commodity he was two years ago. BYU has missed the tournament consecutive years and finished fifth in the WCC two years in a row.
I believe Pope will ultimately be at BYU next season and he will work like crazy this offseason to assemble the best roster he can, but I also believe he’ll listen to calls from other schools.
What should be the offseason plan for BYU?
In case you didn’t hear, BYU is going into the Big 12 — and it is the best league in the country. According to KenPom, the Big 12 has been the top league in the nation 8 of the last 10 years. The other two years they finished number two. Texas and Oklahoma will leave in 2024, but Houston is number in the country, Cincinnati has good tradition, and UCF is improving. BYU could be better next year and still go 4-14 in conference.
If I was advising Pope, I would tell him to keep the main core together and add ~3 transfers. BYU is only losing Gideon George and Rudi Williams to graduation and adds RM Jake Wahlin. That leaves BYU as of now with one open scholarship. There will be other transfers, the question is how many. BYU needs to do what they can to at a minimum to keep the main core of Fouss, Dallin Hall, Richie Saunders, Spencer Johnson, Atiki, and Jaxson Robinson. Trevin Knell has two years of eligibility left after redshirting this season due to a shoulder injury, and Tanner Toolson struggled with injuries. Trey Stewart had his moments and his very athletic, but he needs to improve his shooting. Braeden Moore redshirted, and I would not be surprised if he moved on.
If BYU can keep that main core and add a few impact transfers, that is the recipe for success. BYU needs a main core that can grow together, and they have that now if things don’t get messed up. Adding a few impact transfers to that will help the overall talent while not turning over a roster. As mentioned before, BYU has the Big 12 to recruit with, so we will how much of a difference that can make.
Can Pope Succeed at BYU?
I believe Mark Pope can succeed at BYU. His BYU tenure has had its ups and downs, but he has the tenacity to succeed at BYU. He will need to keep this main core together and add some impact players from the portal, but I’m excited to see what he can do this offseason with the Big 12 as an extra recruiting tool.