BYU men’s basketball head coach Mark Pope has instilled Cougar nation with excitement that hasn’t been felt since the Jimmer Fredette era.
BYU hired Pope as the new head coach for the men’s basketball team in April 2019 after the retirement of former coach Dave Rose, who coached at BYU for more than 22 years, with 14 of those spent as the head coach. He was 348-135 overall, with a 72.0% win rate. After his father’s passing and the Nick Emery NCAA case, Rose decided to step down and Pope filled the high-pressure role.
Before Pope came to BYU, the Cougars were coming off of a 19-13 season, the first time BYU had less than 20 wins since the 2004-05 season when it went 9-21. BYU was up and down, losing to teams it shouldn’t have one week and playing well the next. It wrapped up the season with a shocking 80-57 first-round WCC tournament loss to San Diego, who BYU beat twice in regular season play. The Cougars then failed to get an NIT invite for the first time in three seasons.
Across the valley, Pope was coaching the Utah Valley Wolverines to historic seasons for the school. UVU hired Pope in 2015 in hopes of bringing recognition to the school. Pope did just that.
During the 2017-18 season, Pope organized what is known as the “#Toughest24,” where he opened the season with back-to-back road games against then No. 4 Kentucky and No. 1 Duke on back-to-back nights. The same season, Pope led UVU to 16 home wins, the most in the school’s history. The Wolverines finished the season ranked No. 92 in both KenPom and RPI rankings, the highest in program history.
From 2017 to 2019, Pope led the Wolverines to a 30-2 overall home record and coached the UVU to three-straight NIT appearances in 2017, 2018 and 2019. The Wolverines made it as far as the semifinals in 2017.
Pope now uses his knowledge and experience to help the Cougars, boasting a 23-7 record so far in his first season as head coach. Pope coached BYU to notable wins against teams such as No. 20 Houston and Saint Mary’s, after TJ Haws sunk a game-winning three with nine seconds on the clock to win 81-79 in the conference thriller, in addition to No. 2 Gonzaga.
Pope also helped Kentucky win the 1996 NCAA National Championship during his college career. With his playing experience and coaching expertise, Pope knows what it takes to win.
“Pope understands that basketball is a game of runs,” sophomore guard Connor Harding said. “There’s gonna be times where the game is really ugly, but he embraces that, and he tells us to always fight through it. And he knows that if we do that, we’ll come out on top.”
From last season, BYU has notably improved in multiple categories. One of BYU’s worst categories last season was three-point shooting. The Cougars shot 33% from behind the arc and ranked No. 250 in the country. As of Feb. 13, the Cougars shoot 42.2% from three, and are ranked No. 1 in the country. WCC rival Saint Mary’s follows behind at No. 2, making 40.8% of its threes.
BYU also improved in general field goal percentage and assist turnover ratio. The Cougars rank No. 3 in the nation in field goal percentage at 50.3% and have an assist turnover ratio of 1.57, which puts BYU at No. 2 in the nation. BYU was previously ranked No. 53 in the country with a 46.8% field goal percentage.
As a result of the team’s success, the BYU team is ranked at its highest in years. In the NCAA NET rankings, the Cougars fall in at No. 14, its highest NET ranking of the season so far. BYU also falls in at No. 16 in the KenPom rankings, its highest ranking since the Jimmer Fredette 2010-11 season when the Cougars finished at No. 12. BYU is also ranked for the first time since Jimmermania, coming in at No. 17.
Pope not only impacted BYU’s statistics, but also the team mindset. Harding thinks the biggest change from last year is overall mentality.
“We’re all confident,” Harding said. “You look at Dalton, Zac, Jake, TJ, Yoeli — they’re confident. They get in there, they’re confident, they’re shooting shots and making plays. We never feel like we’re ever going to lose a game and we’re gonna find ways to win.”
Pope has incited change in the BYU basketball program, which can be seen through its improved stats. But while many people know Pope’s accomplishments and recognize his passion at games, not many know Pope’s true coaching style. BYU big man Kolby Lee is typically a man of few words, but when it came to Pope, Lee couldn’t stop talking about his coach’s impact on the team.
“He’s definitely fiery,” Lee said. “If you do something right, he’s gonna praise you for it. If you do something wrong, he’s going to rip into you. If you have a really good day, he’s going to let you know. If you mess up, he’s going to hold every single person accountable, no matter if you’re Yoeli or if you’re Trevin Knell, the freshman. It doesn’t matter who you are.”
Lee continued by saying that Pope never fails to tell the players that he loves them and is proud of them. “He’s just a true players’ coach.”
Coming into the 2019-20 season, there was both uncertainty and excitement around what Pope could do for the Cougars. But Pope said that at the heart of athletics, there’s faith.
“It is the thing you build yourself on as an athlete,” Pope said. “You believe in your teammates, you have faith in them. You have faith in your system and your staff. You have faith in the work that you put in every single day. You have to have faith in sticking to it every single day, despite the setbacks.”