Mark Pope applauds fans after a game in the Marriott Center. (Decker Westenburg)

Column: Mark Pope needs a slam-dunk offseason. The future of his program depends on it.

There’s a ferocious beast lurking in the distance for BYU men’s basketball.

We’ve yet to see it, but we all know about it. There’s still a good 21 months before it truly enters our lives, but one might argue that won’t be enough time to adequately prepare for its arrival.

Get ready to batten down the hatches at the Marriott Center. The Big 12 is on its way, and there won’t be the slightest bit of mercy.

Of all the hot takes, declarative outcries and nuance-less chatter among BYU fans over the course of the past season, a common theme emerged to become a chorus of crisis — this current edition of BYU basketball is light years away from being competitive in the Big 12.

Deep breaths, everyone.

The Big 12 was undeniably the strongest conference in America this season. Seven current or future Big 12 teams made the NCAA Tournament, with four reaching the Sweet 16 and Kansas playing in the Final Four this weekend. Baylor is the defending national champion, Texas Tech played in the 2019 title game and the conference’s seventh-place squad — Iowa State — still managed to win 22 games and earn a Sweet 16 appearance despite a lackluster 7-11 record in conference play.

It’s essentially the same as playing Gonzaga or Saint Mary’s every night, only without a clear “gimme” game on the schedule such as Pacific. Wait…

The problem with entering such intense territory as the Big 12 is that it’s not a simple one-year transition — it’s bound to be a grueling, long-term effort that really should have begun much earlier.

When Mark Pope was hired in April 2019, he had no way of knowing that he’d be promoted from leading a decent mid-major to heading a power program within three years without ever needing to change offices or business cards. I mean no disrespect to Pope in the slightest, as he’s clearly done a solid job to reestablish BYU as a strong mid-major force in the national landscape since his takeover (all late-season collapses notwithstanding), but competing in the WCC is wildly different than merely surviving in the Big 12.

Pope is 68-26 at BYU thus far. For the most part, his plan has worked.

Now, it needs to change a whole lot.

The time is now to construct a Big 12 roster, which will come with plenty of tough personnel decisions this offseason. Pope and his coaching staff need younger rotations in 2022, not a swarm of seniors eating up key minutes that will hinder the development of the projected impact players for 2023.

BYU has an acceptable core of Fouss Traore, Atiki Ally Atiki and Caleb Lohner to build around, with incoming freshmen Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders adding hope in the galaxy.

Players like Hunter Erickson, Nate Hansen, Seneca Knight, Trevin Knell, Spencer Johnson and Gideon George should think long and hard about possible transfer destinations, seeing that they’ve either failed to find a consistent role within Pope’s rotation or won’t be around long enough to play in the Big 12.

I know some of them are already exploring options, with Jeremy Dowdell already jumping ship earlier today, so don’t be surprised to see an exodus to UVU and beyond.

It’s not an easy sacrifice to make, but BYU should really use this next season as a total rebuilding campaign to get set for Big 12 action rather than buy on credit to compete and set the program further behind for 2023. It may be painful to watch, but it will all make sense and pay dividends later.

Basically, this offseason isn’t about winning games in the coming season. It’s about winning in 2023 and beyond. The immediate growing pains will become eventual wins.

BYU desperately needs to get longer, more athletic and better on defense. It needs to be able to match the bruising physicality of other Big 12 programs and hold its own on the glass. A starting five of all religiously-diverse players— first accomplished in the program’s history on Feb. 11 at LMU— needs to become a more common occurrence rather than an outlier.

That all starts with recruiting.

The offseason may have just begun, but Pope’s recruiting efforts are in full swing, notably taking one prospect to dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings and boarding a.. um.. questionable airplane for another journey. Personally, if I was wined-and-dined at B-Dubs, I’d sign with Pope in a heartbeat. I guess we’ll see if Sean East, the recruit in question, agrees with me.

Pope has put a lot of stock in the transfer portal, most notably striking gold by pirating three-year starter Alex Barcello from Arizona early in his tenure.

While Pope has banked heavily on one-and-done transfers such as Matt Haarms and Te’Jon Lucas, it’s become clear that rentals like Haarms help assemble good teams, while longer-term transfer projects such as Barcello help develop good programs.

There’s a stark difference between the two, with the latter tending to experience much more March success. Just ask this year’s Final Four squads.

Coaches such as Miami’s Jim Larrañaga have become masters of utilizing the transfer portal, and Pope can definitely reach a similar status as the power conference stamp will open plenty of doors BYU has never seen before.

BYU has a spacious, rowdy arena, rich basketball tradition (Jimmer, anyone?), a stellar annex facility and even NBA executives Ryan Smith and Danny Ainge sitting courtside at every game. Pair that package with the potential to play meaningful games in March every year, and BYU should be a destination that recruits are seeking out themselves. Right?

Well, before BYU becomes a “destination,” it needs to outgrow the 801. If recruiting Utah high school all-stars (who really should be playing at Snow College) never won the WCC, BYU won’t have a prayer in the Big 12. BYU’s roster needs a lot less Lone Peak and Timpview and much more talent from locations outside of biking distance.

Aside from the obvious Colin Chandler-type exceptions, the Wasatch Front shouldn’t be BYU’s default spot to handpick its depth pieces. Recruiting like a Big 12 program requires thinking and acting like one, and I can guarantee that most of BYU’s conference mates won’t be flocking to Brighton or American Fork anytime soon.

It goes without saying that BYU is in for a rude awakening upon entering its new conference digs, but the turbulence of the transition and how long it takes BYU to adjust and overcome is directly correlated to this offseason. Recruiting needs to take a step up. Player development needs to accelerate. Tough roster decisions need to be made.

Pope is never one to shy away from chasing discomfort, and Big 12 preparation and entry will be plenty uncomfortable. This is the offseason for Pope to decide whether his program writes a new chapter of continued excellence with national prestige, NBA talent and March glory, or if BYU will drop the ball, drag its feet and join the likes of TCU and West Virginia as irrelevant Big 12 punching bags with no tangible hardware.

The Big 12 offers the most exciting future BYU men’s basketball has ever enjoyed. This offseason is where it all begins.

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