Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
PROVO — One by one they came, first slowly, and eventually as a small throng.
They amassed together but also alone, waiting at the Provo Airport in the middle of the night to catch a glimpse of the returning heroes.
When the BYU men's basketball team returned home shortly after 1 a.m. MT following an 81-49 dismantling of No. 12 Oregon at the Moda Center in Portland, they were waiting: several dozen BYU fans lining the street outside the tiny regional airport, welcoming the Cougars home like a band of returning mercenaries.
Mission accomplished; now let's get back to work, they all seemed to say even as they scattered to the wind before 2 a.m., with only the faint echo of the BYU fight song sung by a female student catching the wind off the shore of Utah Lake.
Mark Pope continued to work miracles with the BYU basketball program Tuesday night. But this miracle wasn't Alex Barcello erupting for a near-perfect 25 points on 9-of-11 shooting, or leading the Cougars to their first NCAA Tournament in five years, or even convincing players like Te'Jon Lucas, Seneca Knight or Matt Haarms before them to transfer to the Provo campus.
This miracle was different because in a sport that desperately lacks relevance in all months outside of March — maybe in February for the most elite of teams and conferences — Pope had seemingly done the impossible.
He made BYU basketball relevant in November.
"It was great seeing you guys at the airport," tweeted Lucas at the students of the Roar of Cougars, BYU's student section, hours after scoring 12 points with three assists against the Ducks. "Love you guys, support!"
Added Gavin Baxter, whose emotional recovery from two season-ending injuries continued Tuesday night with his best game of BYU's 3-0 start to date: "The ROC crazy for showing up at 2 a.m. I know y'all got class in the morning."
The Cougars picked up right where they left off last year, only better. Instead of wilting under a Pac-12 team that advanced to the Final Four — and one ranked No. 2 in the most recent Associated Press Top 25, just behind Gonzaga — in UCLA, BYU went toe-to-toe with a fellow Pac-12 power. Then, the Cougars stepped on that toe.
Oregon was picked second in the Pac-12 in the preseason, and justified their top-15 national ranking with double-digit wins over Texas Southern and SMU. But BYU made the Ducks look mortal early, and often, jumping out to leads of 16-6, 37-18 and 52-29 before cruising to a 32-point victory.
That's not to say the Ducks are complete frauds, or that Dana Altman isn't a great coach. Oregon was simply caught unaware, flatfooted and unprepared, to borrow one word used by the 41-year college coach with a .662 winning percentage.
"We have so much respect for this team and this program," Pope said during his postgame show on BYU Radio. "When I was here as an assistant, we lost to them in a one-off game. I understand how good this team is.
"We knew we had our work cut out for us. We knew this was going to test our defensive principles and on the glass like our guys have not been tested this season. So I'm super proud of our effort."
The Cougars took an unbelievably difficult task — opening with three returning NCAA Tournament teams, the first time BYU has attempted such a feat since arriving at the Great Alaska Shootout to open the 1994-95 season — and made it look easy.
OK, maybe not easy. But in dispatching Cleveland State (No. 15 seed), in winning the trust of four-star prospect Collin Chandler, in fending off San Diego State (No. 6), and handling Oregon (No. 7) — a team that advanced to last year's Sweet Sixteen — the Cougars showed they belong among the nation's elite.
"I think every win means a lot to us," Barcello said. "Obviously this was a highly-ranked team, a lot of talented guys. So this is definitely a huge win for us.
"Starting off the season 3-0 is probably what all of us wished for a few months ago. We're going to enjoy the night; it's a really big win for us, we're happy for us, it was a great scout. And now we're moving on to the next game."
BYU's win is just the latest in a phenomenal start for the West Coast Conference, led by No. 1 Gonzaga's 86-74 smashing of No. 5 Texas en route to its own 3-0 start. Saint Mary's is also 3-0, and San Francisco moved to 4-0 on the season.
Santa Clara stayed undefeated with a 22-point win over Nevada, four days after throttling Stanford 88-72. Four WCC teams are ranked among KenPom's top 50, led by No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 20 BYU, with USF (32) and Saint Mary's (41) not far behind. It's enough to rank the West Coast Conference at No. 7 by KenPom, just outside the Power Five+Big East, ahead of the American, Mountain West and Atlantic-10 conferences.
Oregon likely won't be ranked at No. 12 in next week's AP Top 25, almost as assuredly as BYU — which received 26 votes Monday — will be somewhere in the picture, perhaps as high as the mid-teens.
But as big as the first three games have been, it's still only three games. Pope has made BYU basketball relevant in November, but the real goal is to be relevant year-round, and more importantly, in March (and April).
In the final year of the AB era — that's Alex Barcello, not an amended version of anno domini — the Cougars started talking about championships, about contending, about Sweet Sixteens and Final Fours. There's still a long way to go to get there.
But BYU has taken the first step toward those goals. The next one is Saturday against NAIA Central Methodist (7 p.m. MT, BYUtv).
"They're going to hear all the noise. But I think the guys are having a lot of fun," Pope said. "I think our guys are just excited to get home and get back to work, because we think we can be a really good team."