BYU Men’s Basketball: Inside the ‘best locker room in America’

BYU Men’s Basketball head coach Mark Pope came to Provo with a vision to create the “best locker room in America,” a mantra that has led the Cougars to success in both of Pope’s seasons so far.

Building what the team refers to as #BLRA has both tangible and intangible measurements that Pope and his coaching staff believe directly translate to success on the court.

“It really is a key to who we are and what we should do,” Pope said. “We believe that that wins. Like we’re putting money down saying, ‘hey this wins.’ If you can actually develop a locker room like this, it really translates to winning.”

Alex Barcello and Matt Haarms celebrate a big win over Utah State in Logan on Dec. 5, 2020.

So what does it take to build the best locker room in America? What does it look and feel like? And why is it so valuable to BYU Basketball?

Components of the best locker room in America

#BLRA isn’t just a self-proclaimed title, but rather something that is actually noticed by the players.

Forward Gideon George’s #BLRA post on Dec. 2, 2020. (Gideon George/Instagram)

Junior transfer Gideon George described it as teammates who push you, give you confidence, and a feeling of love and care from the team. Freshman Caleb Lohner added that #BLRA is a unity grown by working towards a common goal.

BYU is the third team that graduate transfer Brandon Averette has played for. He explained what #BLRA means to him.

“I feel that family-oriented feel. Like in the locker room, you know you have your brother’s back, and you know that your brother has your back,” Averette said. “We’re all excited to play with each other, you know, just rooting for each other. Turning down a good shot for a great shot or just trying to make your teammates better, and having fun doing it.”

Matt Haarms hyping up Gideon George after George’s impressive performance against St. John’s on Dec. 2, 2020.

Senior transfer Matt Haarms, whose Purdue teams had a lot of success during his years there, shared his take on #BLRA and what he noticed about the BYU team he joined.

“It’s keeping each other accountable when it’s tough,” Haarms said. “I’m really recognizing that in this team as well. Guys are always listening, and even the guys that talk most and have the most say, they’re always willing to listen to one of their other teammates speak up and I think that’s extremely important.”

Being relentless and getting better every day

In the summer of 2020 fans also learned of two other mantras the BYU men’s basketball team follows that fit in perfectly with the building of the best locker room in America.

Assistant coach Cody Fueger said the relentless aspect of #BLRA is all about “being a great teammate” and caring about everyone, every day. Fueger added that it allows you to “count on your teammate.”

“That’s kind of what our deal is. We’re relentless at showing up every single day and giving it your best effort for the team,” Fueger said. “Everything is for the team. These guys are watching film for the team, to know what’s going on, and getting better individually and collectively as a group. So, relentless is all day, every single day.”

Fueger said the mentality goes from top to bottom, starting with Pope. Members of the coaching staff want to see each other succeed, just as much as the players do.

“You want to see your teammate get better every day,” Fueger said.

Assistant coach Cody Fueger talks with guard Alex Barcello during a game against Portland last season on Jan. 11, 2020. (Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News)

A great example of a jump in performance from last season to this season is Alex Barcello, who Fueger said, “is in our offices, watching film and figuring out where he can get better every single day. He’s on this court going as hard as you can every single day. It’s not like specific shooting percentage or this and that, it’s just working on specific things to get him better all around, but it’s an everyday attitude.”

Through 12 games, Barcello is averaging seven more points, three more assists and 1.6 more rebounds than he did in 32 games last season, but that’s not even the biggest thing that stands out to Pope so far this season.

“His box score is incredible and that’s the least impressive thing that he’s doing for us right now,” Pope said. “Just taking the mantle of leadership has really been extraordinary. It starts in the locker room. It’s off the court and of course stuff on the court.”

Head coach Mark Pope and Alex Barcello talk on their way back to the locker room after a 74-68 win over St. John’s in the Roman Legends Classic presented by Old Trapper on Dec. 2, 2020.

Haarms concluded, “Just being able to build a team that is always able to improve, not only by feedback from the coach but by feedback from each other as well, I think it’s extremely important and it seems like this team has personalities that are willing to improve. It’s so important to have that on a team.”

Why is #BLRA so valuable?

The best teams buy into what the coaching staff preaches. They listen, gain trust in the system, and trust in each other.

One of the first steps in building a good team and the “best locker room in America” is recruiting, something Pope has said he and his staff were very “selective” about this offseason.

“Not just in terms of talent, but also in terms of guys that understand the culture that they’re trying to enter into, in terms of how we’re trying to build this basketball program and what we want it to mean,” Pope said. “We signed a handful of transfers this spring and all of them were excited about the possibility of coming to play for a team where guys were really fighting for each other and were willing to fight their own personal agendas to kind of sacrifice for the team.”

Pope has also talked a lot about why building the best locker room in America requires a constant renewal of commitment.

“It’s not a one-time decision, it doesn’t work as a one-time decision,” Pope said. “You don’t just wake up one time and say, ‘you know what, I’m going to actually totally set aside my own agenda and trust the setting aside of my own agenda and living for this team is going to actually take me to all my individual goals.'”

Head coach Mark Pope in the huddle during a timeout against Westminster on Nov. 25, 2020. (Nate Edwards/BYU Photo)

“We try and help our guys believe in that journey of belief in the enlightened self-interest of giving yourself wholly to the team and the belief that you’re actually going to get paid back individually much greater than if you try and take from the team,” Pope said. “You have to reinforce that belief every single day, and then you gotta point every single time when it actually manifests itself so guys can keep believing because every other voice in the world is trying to convince them that’s not the case.”

One of Pope’s overarching goals in building the best locker room in America is for each player to care less about his personal statistics and more about his efforts in strengthening the team. While a tall task that may be easier said than done, the coaching staff believes it is possible.

When asked about what it’s like to play for Pope, freshman Hunter Erickson responded with an answer that falls right in line with what the Cougars are aiming for.

“It’s all about being a team player,” Erickson said. “We’re not trying to make the play for ourselves, we’re trying to make the play for our teammates. Everyone wants you to shoot the open shot, no matter what. If my teammate’s missed five in a row, we’re all telling him to shoot the next open shot. I think that’s something super unique and I’ve enjoyed that a lot.”

#BLRA

#BLRA is best summed up by Barcello, who has emerged as a leader of the team.

“I just want to go out there and give it my all for these guys because that’s what each one of them does,” Barcello said.

BYU Basketball celebrated back-to-back wins (St. John’s on Dec. 2, 2020 and Utah State on Dec. 5, 2020) with water bottle celebrations, reminiscent of the OG Dasani celebration following its huge win over Gonzaga last season. Head coach Mark Pope also brought the entire water cooler into the locker room after beating rival Utah on Dec. 12, 2020.

This 2020-21 BYU men’s basketball team (9-3) has bought into the building of #BLRA. It has created a locker room full of athletes who play for each other and play to win, with the potential to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, just as last season’s team looked poised to do.

“In terms of identity, like the core of who we are, I hope that never changes,” Pope said. “Being relentless and everything that means to us, this tenacious effort to get better every single day is like a DNA of us, and working every day towards the best locker room in America. That’s our DNA. That’s who we are. And I hope that this team can even be better at those three things than last year’s team was.”

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