SALT LAKE CITY — Ever the optimist, despite the program’s limited success in the NCAA Tournament, Mark Pope is crazy enough to believe his BYU basketball team has a good chance to play deep into next month.
The Cougars in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight? Good one.
Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette led BYU to Elite Eight and Sweet 16 appearances in 1981 and 2011, respectively, but that’s as far as it goes in the last 40 years. The common denominator to the success is both BYU legends were named the NCAA Player of the Year in each of their senior seasons.
Nobody on the current team will even be nominated for such a prestigious award. But don’t expect Pope to set limits on this team’s capability.
“We’re trying to be in the second to third week of the tournament,” assistant coach Chris Burgess said in an interview on The Zone Sports Network. “It’s scary to say that, right? But once these guys start to believe what he believes, then you’re doing your job as a coach.”
In his first year as the coach, Pope would do well just to get BYU into the tournament considering the program hasn’t qualified since 2016. At 19-7 and in second place in the West Coast Conference, barring a total collapse, the Cougars will break the NCAA drought.
Even if he can’t publicly say as much, Pope is thinking beyond just getting in. Loaded with five seniors, BYU finally has experienced talent to fit the coach’s expectations.
“Coach is trying to get these guys not to just think about making the NCAA Tournament,” Burgess said. “That’s not coach’s goal. Coach’s goal is to win games in the NCAA Tournament.”
Like former coach Dave Rose, who played on the Houston team that reached the Final Four in 1983, Pope can draw upon his playing experience as a coach. He was part of the 1996 Kentucky team that won the national championship.
In addition, Burgess played on a Duke team that lost the title game to Connecticut in 1999. Assistant coach Nick Robinson was a team captain for Stanford, which was a No. 1 seed in 2004. Pope also played six seasons in the NBA.
“When you’re looking at your coach and he’s won a national championship and played at the highest level, there’s some creditability that these players know (what) this guy is talking about,” Burgess said. “He’s been there. He knows how hard it is to be a championship team.”
Pope’s unbridled enthusiasm has provided a jolt to a program that had settled into a malaise. Starting with Rose’s second season in 2006-07, BYU made the NCAA Tournament eight times in nine years until falling short the last four years.
The program was undercut the last few years by players transferring or leaving early to play professionally overseas. Even before Rose’s decision to retire, Pope was identified as the leading candidate to replace him.
As a going away present, Rose left the program in excellent shape. Pope then augmented the talent by getting Yoeli Childs to renege on his decision to turn professional after this junior season and also bringing in transfers Alex Barcello and Jake Toolson, who originally signed to play for Rose before transferring to play for Pope at UVU.
Calling him “the full package when it comes to a head coach running a program,” Burgess said Pope has tapped into each player’s potential, from the stars of the team to last reserves on the bench.
“He brings an energy every single day in practice,” Burgess said. “One thing he always talks about when we meet as a staff is let’s bring some joy to this gym today. It’s easy when you’re winning and things are going well.
“But let’s just say it’s February and you’re coming off a loss, it’s a long grind and he’s still talking about bringing joy to this gym. Our job as a staff is to bring some joy and energy and some juice to this gym, so these guys can feel it and they can feed off of us as a staff.”