The BYU men's basketball team huddles during a loss to Pacific on Jan. 29. (Preston Crawley/BYU Men's Basketball)

BYU men’s hoops left searching for answers following winless road trip

Mark Pope has made it his mission to accomplish things at BYU that have never been done before.

Pope’s challenge this week, however, is one he’s yet to face thus far in Provo: how to recover from consecutive regular-season losses.

Prior to this past weekend, Pope’s BYU squads had never dropped back-to-back contests. A fateful road swing saw the Cougars lose on a coast-to-coast buzzer-beater at Santa Clara and then fail to show up against conference cellar-dweller Pacific — snapping the Tigers’ seven-game losing skid — as BYU went from being the West Coast Conference’s presumed second-best team to much more vulnerable than expected.

“A lot of it has to do with not being dialed in and not trusting each other,” guard Te’Jon Lucas said.

Up to this point, it felt like “Mark Pope’s motley crew” could find a new way to win every night, but this past week it was as if BYU was handing the game away at every opportunity. Their turnover problem caught up with them in surrendering 32 over the two losses, their 3-point inconsistency drudged on and overall offensive decision-making was less than stellar.

“That’s not us,” Pope said. “That’s not the character of this team. We are 100% urgent from the tip.”

Tuesday’s practice at the Marriott Center wasn’t just somber: It felt lifeless. The typical intensity was nowhere to be found, being replaced by a subdued humility among the players. Even Pope — the same coach who tosses a Nerf football around the practice floor and jokes with reporters afterward about Crumbl cookies and ducks — was eerily deflated.

Following the practice’s closing scrimmage, the players huddled together on their own with Alex Barcello leading at the center. Lucas, Barcello and a few other players gathered Sunday night at Barcello’s apartment for an in-depth discussion to dive into their struggles and search for any sort of remedy.

“We need to go back to what we were doing in the beginning to win games: Being one of the best defensive teams in the nation and buying in on offense,” Lucas said of the meeting. “It was a rough week for us, but at least we get to learn from it.” 

BYU’s slump could not come at a worse time, with San Francisco and No. 2 Gonzaga strolling into the Marriott Center this week for another major challenge demanding an immediate solution.

The Dons outplayed the Cougars in their Jan. 15 matchup only for the Cougars to swipe away the victory in the final seconds. Gonzaga — the best college basketball team on the planet — spent the final 35 minutes of their Jan. 13 meeting manhandling the Cougar defense any way they pleased.

While every game within the conference is a test in its own right, if playing Pacific was supposed to be a cakewalk, then playing Gonzaga is like driving into oncoming traffic.

“We have a keen understanding of what we’re facing,” Pope said. “It always comes down to effort. The rest of it will come from scheme, matchups and spacing.”

To reach the coveted two seed in the WCC Tournament — and have any chance to go dancing this March — the Cougars can’t afford to lose four straight games. Being upset twice on the road against conference B-listers revealed a lot about this BYU team, and playing the WCC’s two top dogs at home will be even more telling.

Are the Cougars the same team that started the season a Pope era-best 17–4 and always found a way to win no matter the circumstances? Or was this merely overachieving magic bound to run dry once consistent turnover issues, injuries, a stagnant Caleb Lohner, size disadvantages and no true number two scorer caught up with them?

We’ll know for sure this week. “It’s hard to win games, and these guys have spoiled us all year long,” Pope said.

“We’ve played hard, but we need to play smart,” Lucas added.

According to a Daily Universe Sports Instagram poll conducted on Monday, 57% of users who responded indicated their loss of faith in this year’s edition of BYU men’s basketball. On the other hand, the Cougars are still undefeated at home and Pope is a lifetime 13–1 in February at BYU, including a 2020 home victory over the Zags.

“Coming back home is always a plus,” Lucas said. “We’re just blessed to play in front of a crowd, so that’ll definitely help us.” 

The Cougars and Dons tip-off this Thursday at 8 p.m., followed by Saturday’s showdown with Gonzaga at 8 p.m.

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