The writing is on the ‘Word Wall’ for BYU men’s basketball
“Lose yourself in the team.”
“Joy in the gym.”
“Shock the world.”
It could be said that, for BYU men’s basketball, the “writing is on the wall.”
Only, it’s not just on the wall, it is the wall – the BYU men’s basketball “Word Wall.”
“There’s probably 20 phrases on there and that’s something we try to live with every day,” senior guard Alex Barcello said. “We try to focus on a few of those every day.”
To be exact, the “Word Wall,” consists of 26 statements that are displayed throughout the locker room, the coaches’ offices and on the back of team T-shirts. Each statement is voted onto the wall by the team, thus becoming a foundation for its success on and off the court.
The words on the Word Wall echoed out of the mouths of coaches and players alike at the recent team media day. Together, these words spell out the goals and challenges the Cougars face in the upcoming 2021-2022 season.
The 2020-21 Cougars went 20-7 (10-3 in WCC), finished as runner-up to the West Coast Conference title, achieved the program’s second straight season with an AP Top 25 ranking (No. 23) and celebrated their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2015.
Two of the top-three scorers from that team are gone with the departure of senior starters Brandon Averette and Matt Haarms. Veteran contributors Kolby Lee and Connor Harding also left the program during the offseason.
In short, BYU head coach Mark Pope and his staff faced another spring and summer of roster reassembly.
And reassemble they did.
Barcello’s return was undoubtedly the biggest recruiting coup of the summer for the Cougars. The fifth-year senior and 2021 AP Honorable Mention All-American led BYU in scoring a season ago with 16.1 points per game while shooting 52.3% from the field and 47.7% from 3-point range.
“Luckily, we’ve got Alex Barcello back,” senior center Richard Harward said. “He’s such an amazing floor general, floor commander. He’s able to make the right decisions every time.”
Harward is joined by forward Caleb Lohner and guards Trevin Knell, Gideon George and Spencer Johnson as returners who started or saw significant experience in 2021.
Senior forward Gavin Baxter is also set to return following back-to-back seasons with extensive absences due to injury. Eight recently returned missionaries and fresh high school recruits also provide the Cougars with a boatload of youthful potential.
“I’m super excited about this team,” Pope said. “We have depth again like we did last year, which is exciting.”
The team’s depth was further bolstered by two transfers in guard Te’Jon Lucas and forward Seneca Knight. Lucas averaged nearly 15 points per game at Milwaukee last season, while Knight put up 17 points per game two years ago at San Jose State.
After just a few months of practices, Pope is thrilled with the addition of Lucas to the backcourt.
“Te’Jon adds such an incredible dynamic to our team,” Pope said. “He brings so much joy to the gym every day. His happiest space is making plays for guys.”
Overall, the third-year head coach is excited about the group he’s gathered.
“We’re long through the middle between Gideon, Caleb, Seneca and Gavin,” Pope said. “We have incredible experience in the backcourt with two proven, tested, veteran guys. It’s a fun team, exciting group.”
“Joy in the Gym”
At media day, Pope acknowledged one of the biggest shortcomings of his team in 2021. While some might point to rebounding or turnovers as ailments of last year’s team, Pope pointed out a problematic lack of “joy in the gym.”
“We did a poor job with that last year,” Pope said. “Guys perform better when they enjoy the game.”
Pope observed that COVID-19 precautions took a toll on his team over the course of the season. Some of these challenging measures included limited time with friends and family and tighter restrictions on team activities off the court.
“I underestimated the importance of the opportunity for these guys to go out and be with friends in the evening sometimes,” Pope said. “They didn’t have any of that last season and I did a bad job compensating for that loss.”
Perhaps most challenging of all was the absence of fans at games. Pope also admitted that he underestimated the importance of the joy fans bring to the gym.
“Every time you go to a game in the Marriott Center, you walk out, and you can’t hear for the next two days because the place has been so loud,” Pope said. “All you hear is the joyful sound of the ROC going crazy and people losing their minds. That stays in your heart and soul. You just feed off that as a team.”
Even with the return of fans, Pope and his team are doing everything they can to rediscover this joy. They’ve found that joy in the gym often comes from what the team does outside the gym.
“Guys get together, hang out, play board games, go to a volleyball or football game here,” Barcello said. “We love to hang out and tell jokes.”
Barcello has seen off-court comradery unite a team of diverse experiences and background on the court.
“We have a lot of guys that are playmakers on this team that are very unselfish,” Barcello said, “and it’s fun to play with guys like that.”
Since Pope’s arrival at BYU, he has declared his drive to build the “Best Locker Room in America.” Unselfishness and joy in the gym are key ingredients to Pope’s roster recipe. Te’Jon Lucas has embraced this vision since his arrival in Provo.
“Everybody wants to have their own agendas coming into college,” Lucas said. “The best locker room in America is all about putting away your own agenda and doing what’s best for the team.”
The unity, the joy, the best locker room in America – this is the vision Pope has for his team this season.
“If we’re going to pull every ounce of potential we have out of this team,” Pope said, “then there’s got to be joy.”
“Shock the World”
What might be the potential of this season’s team?
While there’s progress yet to be made, Pope sees the possibility for something special in this mix of seniors, transfers, returned missionaries and true freshmen.
“We’ve got a bunch of things on the table that we’re trying to get better at,” Pope said. “These guys have been working hard to do it. This could be a really special team.”
The last two years have seen the Cougars ranked in the AP Top 25 at the close of the regular season following memorable wins over WCC rivals Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. While BYU seemed poised for deep NCAA Tournament runs in each of the last two seasons, a pandemic and a red-hot UCLA team cut both postseasons short. Barcello and the Cougars are seeking to turn that frustration into fight in 2022.
“I’ve thought about the UCLA game every day since we lost,” Barcello said. “It’s motivated me to do something different this year and to have our team do something different this year.”
Different would include winning a conference tournament or regular-season title and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64.
The Cougars haven’t advanced past the Round of 64 or won a conference regular-season title since Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery led the way in 2011. Former head coach Steve Cleveland was at the helm of the program the last time it took home a conference tournament title in 2001.
Meanwhile, Gonzaga has held the WCC crown in a death grip of late. The Zags have seized eight of the last ten league regular season and tournament titles.
Unseating Gonzaga as WCC champion and advancing in the NCAA Tournament are among the goals of this year’s team.
“We don’t just want to get to the tournament,” Barcello said. “We want to win, win big. We want to bring championships to Provo. This school deserves that.”
As the Word Wall says, “Shock the World.”
Pope, Barcello and the team are set to play an exhibition game versus Colorado Christian on Thursday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. MDT at the Marriott Center. The Cougars will open the regular season as they host Cleveland State on Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 7 p.m. MDT. Both games will be broadcast live on BYUTV.