Patrick Kinahan: Changing recruiting base to become necessity for BYU basketball

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SALT LAKE CITY — Amid a disappointing season that probably won't include the NCAA Tournament, this year's BYU basketball team has made a different kind of history that could pay dividends when the program moves into the Big 12.

Over the past several decades many BYU basketball players were not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which sponsors the institution. But two weeks ago, for the first time, the entire starting lineup consisted of athletes that were not members of the faith, four of whom were Black.

The historical significance was not lost on long-time followers of the program, recognizing that traditionally BYU fields a team reflective of the overwhelmingly Caucasian and Latter-day Saint student body.

"I was absolutely thrilled to see BYU starting five players of different religious faiths and also that four of the five starters were Black," said BYU broadcaster Mark Durrant, who played on the team in the 1990s. "I couldn't be more proud to have those amazing young men represent my alma mater and to also represent the church I love. I think it represents the progress BYU has made and is a great sign for the future."

It also may be necessary for BYU's survival going into the Big 12, which is far more superior to the West Coast Conference. BYU, currently in fifth place in the WCC, is scheduled to switch conferences for the 2023-24 season.

Even with a more diverse roster, the Cougars could finish with their worst WCC record since joining the conference in 2011-2012. They have either finished second or third every year in the regular season and have never won the conference tournament.

One month ago, BYU seemed like a lock to make the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season under coach Mark Pope (the program would have made it his first season but the tournament was canceled). After starting 17-4, the Cougars lost four consecutive conference games and then barely escaped with wins over Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, which are a combined 3-24 in the WCC.

With only two conference games remaining, home games against Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, BYU is on target to face Gonzaga in the conference tournament semifinals. The Bulldogs, unanimously ranked first in the country, have hammered BYU in both meetings this season.

No doubt, Pope's job will become much more difficult after next season. The Big 12, which annually is considered college basketball's best conference, currently has three teams ranked in the top 10.

Clearly, BYU's traditional recruiting base of Latter-day Saint players who leave for two years to serve missions won't be good enough in the new conference. At the same time, the new conference affiliation should attract better recruits.

In his three seasons, Pope has mined the transfer portal to stock his roster and figures to continue the same strategy going forward. Four of the five starters, excluding freshman Fousseyni Traore, in the historic starting lineup are transfers.

"BYU wants these young men and they want to be at BYU," Durrant said. "And we are all better because they are here."

As often is the case in these types of situations, the BYU coaching staff had no specific social agenda in the game two weeks ago against Loyola Marymount. The only intent was to give the Cougars the best chance to win the game.

But the entire team was cognizant of the moment, coinciding with a heightened awareness of social justice sweeping the country. Taking the issues to heart, Pope has brought in speakers to better educate his team on the subject.

"We have a mandate to do everything we can to root out racism" Pope said. "Those are the exact words (of church President Russell M. Nelson). That is something that the leadership here is fully behind and fully endorsing.

"It's a really important cause and it's a cause that has been magnified from the highest leadership levels of this university and this church."

More from Patrick Kinahan:

About the Author: Patrick Kinahan

Patrick Kinahan is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. To read more of his articles, visit Patrick's author page.

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Patrick is a radio host for 97.5/1280 The Zone and the Zone Sports Network. He, along with David James, are on the air Monday-Friday from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m.


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