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PROVO — As the BYU men's basketball team approaches its penultimate season in the West Coast Conference before departing for the Big 12 Conference, the Cougars found themselves in a familiar spot following the release of the preseason coaches poll.
Everybody's still chasing the Zags.
The Cougars were selected No. 2 behind Gonzaga on the release of the poll Thursday morning, with the Zags amassing all but one first-place vote. Teams cannot vote for themselves in the selection.
The Zags sent three players to the NBA draft a season after marching to the NCAA Tournament title game, and still returned arguably the league's top player in Drew Timme, while also nabbing the No. 1 overall recruit nationally by 247Sports in 7-footer Chet Holmgren. The same squad that one year ago went wire-to-wire as the No. 1 team in America until the national championship game has posted 14-straight seasons of 25-plus wins and seven 30-win seasons in the last nine years.
BYU senior guard Alex Barcello and sophomore forward Caleb Lohner were named All-WCC preseason honorees, joining a list that includes Gonzaga's Timme and Andrew Nembhard, Saint Mary's guard Logan Johnson, and San Francisco's Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz, as well as former Wasatch Academy forward Josip Vrankic, who will be a senior at Santa Clara.
The Cougars return eight players, including five who earned starting minutes, from last year's squad that finished 20-7 overall with a 10-3 record in WCC play and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years with a No. 6 seed.
Following the departure of reigning WCC defensive player of the year Matt Haarms, among others, third-year BYU coach Mark Pope again hit the transfer portal and emerged with former Milwaukee guard Te'Jon Lucas and San Jose State scorer Seneca Knight to bolster a back court that some convinced Barcello to return for a sixth season of eligibility allowed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barcello initially explored professional options, but made his return to the Cougars following a season when he led BYU with 16.1 points, 4.3 steals and 0.9 assists per game while shooting 47.7% from 3-point range and 85.6% from the free-throw line. A top 10 3-point shooter nationally, Barcello was named to the All-WCC first team and Associated Press All-America honorable mention following his initial senior season.
"To come back and play for BYU, which is such a great university, I couldn't ask for much more," said Barcello, one of four All-Americans nationally to return for another season of eligibility. "As badly as I wanted to go play professionally or overseas, there was so much left on the table. I felt like I owed it to the coaching staff, all the people here, my teammates, the fans; it just speaks to how amazing this team is.
"I really believe if I didn't have the coaching staff and players we did, I don't know if I would come back."
Lohner earned All-WCC freshman team honors after starting 13 games as a true freshman in 2020-21. The former Wasatch Academy standout from the Dallas area led the team in rebounding with 7.1 boards per game and went on to finish averaging 7.0 points, including a career-high 19 against Pacific on Feb. 18 and an 18-pointer two nights later.
The Cougars' regular season begins Nov. 9 against Cleveland State in the Marriott Center, one of four NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago on the Cougars' nonconference schedule that also features in-state rivals Utah, Utah State, Utah Valley and Weber State, as well as the likes of San Diego State and a trip to the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii.
It was that schedule that made BYU an attractive destination for Knight, who originally committed to transfer closer to home at LSU before reversing course and departing for Provo.
"It's definitely exciting playing teams like San Diego State, Oregon, at Utah. But really every game looks exciting," Knight said. "I've never played for BYU before, and I'm just excited to play with these guys, with the coaches, and to rep the BYU jersey."
Playing in front of a packed crowd at the Marriott Center — which is expected to return to its full or near-full capacity of 19,000 fans following a season played in a mostly vacant building — was an added bonus.
"I love it here. They're very interactive," Knight said of the fanbase. "They're very engaged with the student-athletes, and I love how they support their teams — no matter what sport it is. It makes me want to work 10-times harder so that we can win."
BYU opens the 2021-22 season with an exhibition game Nov. 4 against Colorado Christian.