4 questions for BYU men’s basketball heading into the 2022-23 season

There’s been a feeling of mystery within the Marriott Center lately.

BYU men’s basketball returns to the hardwood Wednesday evening with a scrimmage against Ottawa, opening its season with more question marks and uncertainty than the program has had in years.

What can we honestly expect from the Cougars in year four of the Mark Pope era? A late collapse this past season — coupled with a mass exodus of players transferring out of Provo in the spring — have dampened expectations among fans for the program’s WCC swan song, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to talk about. Here are four questions on our mind heading into the season.

What will Fouss Traore do for an encore?

One of the more prominent storylines this past season was the rise of Fouss Traore, BYU’s freshman phenom who posted one of the most dominant debut campaigns in program history. Thrown into a starting role following injuries to the rest of BYU’s big men, Traore averaged 10.9 points and 9.2 rebounds over 21 starts while shooting an elite 62.6% from the floor.. as a FRESHMAN!

Simply put, Traore was a monster, essentially saving BYU’s season from disaster when all seemed lost. Perhaps the most pressing question for Traore is how to spell his name, as the ROC would have you believe that it’s “Foooooouuuuuss.”

While Traore’s contributions were excellent, they were also a bit of a surprise, as it took two months and major injuries to insert the Mali native into BYU’s starting lineup. Now, Traore is on everyone’s radar, and the pressure to avoid a dreaded sophomore slump is real. Caleb Lohner flashed as a freshman before a frustrating past season sent him packing to Baylor, and any sort of similar struggles for Traore this year would prove catastrophic for the Cougars.

How much of the load will Traore have to shoulder? Do the Cougars plan to make him the focal point on offense, or will his role stay unchanged from what it’s been?

It will be interesting to see how BYU plans to utilize Traore this season, where he could continue as a true post player or be asked to increase his outside shooting and shift into more of a stretch forward type. Coaches asked players to shoot 1,000 three-pointers outside of practice each week, and no one will benefit more from that than Traore.

Traore has an incredibly high ceiling and could be a program cornerstone as the Cougars prepare for the Big 12, but so much of that will depend on his production this season. We’ve all been told to “buy stock now” in regards to Traore, and that stock needs to keep rising.

Who is BYU’s first scoring option?

For the first time in his BYU tenure, Mark Pope won’t have the luxury of Alex Barcello in his arsenal, with the All-American sharpshooter having graduated and taken his 16.7 points per game with him.

BYU’s offense had been the Barcello show for the past two years, and last season’s second-leading scorer — Te’Jon Lucas — is gone as well.

Now what?

BYU’s offensive identity will be completely different this year, which could be a blessing in disguise as the Cougars have a clean slate to improve upon last season’s ho-hum effort, where BYU ranked No. 88 nationally in scoring (74.3 points per game) and No. 91 in three-point shooting (35.3%). Clearly that wasn’t going to get the job done.

So who will be giving the Cougars this offensive makeover?

The most obvious candidate for BYU’s alpha on offense is transfer point guard Rudi Williams, a lights-out shooter who made 44.7% of his shots from behind the arc while averaging 14.7 points per game at Coastal Carolina last year.

Veteran forward Gideon George is another option, having the most experience in Mark Pope’s system (averaging 8.8 points and 5.0 rebounds last year) and being able to score from anywhere on the floor.

If all else fails, Fouss Traore is a double-double machine in the paint, although adding more jumpers to his “bag” would allow his value on offense to skyrocket.

Pope will likely need around a month to tinker with his lineup and rotations before finding the right fit, and it will be interesting to see whether his offense will rely heavily around a single player or become more of a collective group effort.

Has the defense improved at all?

BYU didn’t have a lot of size or length last season, and it became painfully obvious.

While the Cougars didn’t appear awful on defense, the stats tell a different story: BYU was No. 147 nationally in scoring defense (68.3 points per game), No. 173 in blocks (3.2) and a mind boggling No. 311 in forced turnovers (10.71). Not great, Bob!

Had BYU’s opponent three-point percentage been any higher than 30.6% (a miracle, honestly), things could have been even uglier for the Cougars.

At October’s media day, Rudi Williams, Jaxson Robinson and several others all described the team’s current defensive effort as “disruptive,” with coaches having switched BYU’s scheme from man to zone with an emphasis on the full court press, crashing into passing lanes and making opponents feel as uncomfortable as possible.

But will it work?

Well, BYU could have one of its most athletic starting lineups ever, especially on the perimeter. Transfer additions Robinson and Noah Waterman add a great deal of length to the roster, Fouss Traore and Atiki Ally Atiki have freakish wingspans and veterans Gideon George and Spencer Johnson are already skilled defenders who can lead as tone-setters. It will be interesting to see (and hopefully fun to watch) what this “disruptive” defense ends up looking like.

What does Mark Pope’s future at BYU look like?

In three seasons at BYU, Mark Pope is 68-26. Pope has reenergized men’s basketball at BYU, his teams have finished ranked in the top 25 twice and he seems all-in for leading the Cougars into the chaos of the Big 12.

Or does he?

There’s a very real possibility Mark Pope is in his final season on the Marriott Center sideline. Sure, Pope is under contract at BYU through the 2026-27 season, but that may not be enough to keep him in Provo for the Big 12.

Since the 2021 NCAA tournament, Pope has already explored and interviewed for other coaching vacancies across the country, including Arizona, South Carolina and Missouri, per sources. The main factor in keeping him at BYU thus far has been a $10 million buyout clause in his contract which other schools have been hesitant to pay. However, that buyout number drops significantly following this season, leading to a very real possibility where Pope could head elsewhere.

Does Pope want to be a BYU lifer similar to LaVell Edwards or Dave Rose? Honestly, probably not. The man won a national title at Kentucky, after all!

The Big 12 will be a rude awakening for men’s hoops at BYU, and while Pope is all about “chasing discomfort,” starting fresh at another program with a higher chance of success seems like a no-brainer. Sure, maybe Pope does stick around longer than I personally expect him to, but the prospect of him heading for the exit this spring should be in the back of everyone’s mind throughout the season.

Jackson Payne is the lead columnist at Daily Universe Sports. Follow him on Twitter @jackson5payne.

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