Inside Mark Pope’s BYU program, where the most surprising team in college basketball is preparing to storm the Big 12 battlefield

A scorching 8-0 start has BYU men’s hoops ranked No. 1 in NET and capturing loads of national attention. Daily Universe Sports was granted unprecedented access inside the program to observe how these Cougars are clicking so well on the court as they prepare for Big 12 action.

There’s nowhere to hide inside BYU’s men’s basketball offices.

The men’s wing of the Marriott Center annex is tight and intimate, but not claustrophobic. There’s no shortage of space; everyone has plenty of room. What they don’t have is privacy.

During the offseason, head coach Mark Pope decided to tear down all of the office walls, replacing each opaque barrier with clear glass windows. “It used to feel super siloed,” Pope explains. “Now there’s nowhere you can go where you can’t see each other.”

This increased visibility is just one of the ways Pope and his coaching staff are “turning over every rock,” as assistant Kahil Fennell puts it, in their approach for BYU’s inaugural campaign in the Big 12. The jump to America’s best basketball conference is a gargantuan task, one that requires Cougar players and coaches to band together more than ever before. Office isolation wouldn’t serve such a dynamic. Thus, the walls came down.

“We don’t have a ton of room for error,” Pope says. “We need to do this collectively.”

Resilience has become Pope’s favorite word over the past few months. Once a Rhodes Scholar candidate as an English major, Pope’s expansive vocabulary has no shortage of entries, yet everything always seems to come back to resilience. It bleeds into every conversation, every practice, every thought regarding the state of his program. Pope believes it’s at the center of every solution for any forthcoming challenge.

Mark Pope instructs point guard Dallin Hall during an off-season practice. (BYU photo)

“Becoming the most resilient team in the country starts with us and our bond with one another,” Pope says. “We’re attacking that in a lot of different ways. The more invested we are in each other, the more punishment we’ll be able to withstand.”

“Punishment” isn’t a possibility, it’s a guarantee. Life in the Big 12 will be unlike anything BYU has ever seen on the hardwood. It’s a beast of a league, a murderers’ row of basketball powerhouses stacked with size, speed, strength, skill, freak athleticism, deep benches and deeper pockets. It’s a space where the eighth-best squad can still nab a single digit seed in the NCAA tournament. It’s a conference where every other school finished ahead of the Cougars in both KenPom and NET a season ago and all but one were picked ahead of them this year.

Long story short: the heat is on. Pope wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We feel immense pressure, and I think it comes with all kinds of special complications at BYU, and I’m so grateful for that,” Pope says of the program’s Big 12 transition. “Pressure is a privilege, all the cliches are true. When you get to the end of whatever this athletic journey is, you just miss it desperately, and this is all you could ask for as an athlete or coaching staff.

“This is year one of a brand new job for us. There’s huge expectations and a boatload of pressure … that’s all I want in life. It’s awesome.”

Hoods aren’t allowed in BYU’s meeting room. If you want to enter for film study, your head better not be buried in your sweatshirt.

It’s the same principle as the walls and windows standing right outside: an intentional effort to be present with one another will foster stronger, trajectory-altering team unity. Anything to threaten that should be left outside the annex.

The clock nears 1:30 as the players file in for film study with hoods off and heads out. They’re all rather tame this afternoon, aside from Aly Khalifa subtly throwing crumpled balls of paper at different teammates. At least someone here is keeping it light.

It’s time to begin, and Pope has the floor. Basketball is about to dominate the next few hours, but he wants to put things in perspective beforehand. He expresses his desire for his players to “build incredible lives.” He shares that while he’s “dying” for each of them to compete at the next level, professional success should be the “fifth-most impressive thing in your life.” Much like what they hope to do in the Big 12 amid low outside expectations, Pope urges them to “chase more” in life.

“My hopes and dreams are tied to yours,” he says. “My hopes and dreams are tied to yours.”

The screen turns on, but there’s no opponent to study. Instead, a different video begins, showing point guard Trey Stewart — the team’s aspiring fashion designer — presenting a custom-made jacket to Dwyane Wade during the NBA legend’s recent visit to campus. Stewart blushes at the sight of his gifted handiwork as his teammates eat it up.

But wait, there’s more. A new clip rolls, with Wade strutting around a Utah Jazz practice in his new drip. Star Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson — arguably the state’s most recognizable athletic figure — is clearly impressed with Stewart’s creation. “Now I need one,” he says to the camera. Now the Cougars are losing their minds, celebrating Stewart’s recognition as if he hit a buzzer-beater while the jacket maker grins from ear to ear. Not an ounce of jealousy exists in the room. Stewart’s accomplishment means as much to everyone else as their own.

“That right there is the beauty of being a student athlete,” Pope says. “And no place is gonna work harder for you than BYU.”

Mark Pope laughs with his team following BYU’s win over Fresno State on Dec. 1. (BYU photo)

Pope steps aside so Fennell can take center stage, beginning the actual film study portion of the gathering. The second-year Cougars assistant handles the defensive game planning and matchup assignments. He’s rather good at it, and BYU’s 12th-ranked adjusted defensive efficiency makes plenty of sense after watching Fennell’s ability to analyze opposing film.

One by one, Fennell mows through the players making up the next rotation the Cougars will face. He has clips to display every wrinkle in each player’s game, with some examples even dating back to high school contests. It’s clear Fennell has toiled heavily in his preparation; he speaks on each opponent as if he’s studied them for years. He spits out tendencies, statistics and anecdotes with a rich, resonant voice fit for a radio deejay spinning smooth jazz tunes. He has no notes to read from yet never stutters or stumbles once, rattling off thoughtful words like “laissez-faire” or “stanza” to define what’s being shown on the screen.

The team seems hypnotized by Fennell’s deep, concise evaluation. Ponderous silence drowns the room. Some players take notes on their phones or in a notebook. Others choose to stare with a burning focus.

Fennell raises his voice and intensifies when going over the elusive big man who could win the game on his own. He offers a simple key for containing a highly-touted yet inexperienced freshman guard: “make the game hard for him.” A burly, bearded player is shown on the screen as a veteran benchpiece. He appears closer to being a retired lumberjack, let alone playing college basketball.

“This has gotta be the only player older than Spence,” Fennell quips at senior leader Spencer Johnson, igniting immediate laughter from the guys. Johnson leads the laughing charge. He’s six months older than Boston Celtics superstar Jayson Tatum, after all, so age jokes are expected. It’s “a dream come true” to be the nation’s oldest player, he boasts with grinning sarcasm.

The laughter doesn’t linger. The players hop right back into film mode, continuing to study the screen while mentally envisioning their individual assignments. Everyone is fixated on the ball. Their eyes dart up, down, and all around in perfect unison. No one’s sight wanders off-target. The synchronization is obvious.

The Cougars are just as dialed in together on the court as they are during film. Their attack is as balanced as you’ll find in the sport: not a single player ranks among the top 150 nationally in scoring or rebounding, yet as a team they rank in the top five for both. “We can overwhelm people with our group, but we’re not overwhelming individuals,” Pope explains. Additionally, BYU dishes out more than 22 assists per night, shutting down selfishness to earn the best possible shots through crisp, intelligent ball movement. This well-oiled machine isn’t just efficient— it’s good for No. 1 in the NET rankings.

“We don’t have just one guy, but we have 16 guys on the team that make a huge difference,” says shooting guard Trevin Knell. “We all fight until the end of the whistle and we’re playing really good basketball because we’re trusting each other and trusting what Coach Pope has in store for us.”

Creating this cohesion has been a long-term process. A year ago, the staff elected to embrace its roster’s youth to set up maximum familiarity with one another going into the Big 12. Recently returned missionaries Dallin Hall and Richie Saunders and raw transfer additions Jaxson Robinson and Noah Waterman ended up playing much more than previously anticipated. It was a risky investment, as the Cougars took their lumps at times and appeared underwhelming to outsiders, but the current results are impossible to deny: the aforementioned quartet is shooting a combined 50% from the field so far this year after finishing at a 40.2% clip last season. Adding veteran leaders Johnson and Knell to the mix — along with transfer import Khalifa — makes everyone all the more dangerous.

Jaxson Robinson, Trevin Knell, Richie Saunders, Dallin Hall and Fousseyni Traore huddle together against Southeastern Louisiana on Nov. 15. (BYU photo)

“We started this thing from the ground up, and we did that for a reason,” assistant Cody Fueger says. “We wanted to build this core group, and it’s been huge for us.”

Taking a foreign tour to Europe over the summer further solidified the mounting chemistry, as players worked to strengthen their camaraderie as teammates and friends to lift each other on the court. “When you have really special people in the locker room … you get to grow,” says Pope.

A collective underdog mentality doesn’t hurt the vibe. Few bonds are stronger than those formed through hunger.

“Most people don’t expect us to do anything special this year, so I think we’re out to prove we belong,” director of basketball operations Nate Austin says. “It’s not necessarily something we talk about as a staff or as coaches to players, but something I’ve sensed is that we’re out to prove something.”

Pope loves to reference a study regarding U.S. Army Rangers. As he explains it, when faced with life or death circumstances, Rangers weren’t motivated by patriotism, a sense of duty, or the thought of loved ones to survive, but rather it was their shared brotherhood and devotion to one another that fueled them to finish the fight. Pope envisions the same for his own troops.

“That motivation will be stronger than winning over fans or winning games,” he says. “We’re counting on that to get us through.”

BYU’s coaching staff has observed a lot of basketball genius over the years.

Nick Robinson played for Mike Montgomery at Stanford. Fennell was a Chris Mack staffer at Louisville. Fueger worked under Rick Majerus at Utah and alongside FAU hotshot Dusty May at Louisiana Tech. Dave Rose’s fingerprints are still present within the program.

But Pope has everyone else beat. He won a national title at Kentucky with Rick Pitino, was drafted to the NBA by Larry Bird and later played for George Karl. It’s no wonder Pope became a coach; he spent most of his playing career in the presence of great ones.

Pope lights up when asked about his experiences with such prestigious coaching figures. His admiration is as obvious as it would be for any fellow basketball junkie. The education he received from them bleeds into his daily grind in Provo.

“Coach Bird has this calmness about him, he’s just really laser-focused,” Pope says of the man called Larry Legend. “He was not distracted by the emotional moment, and that’s one of my biggest weaknesses as a coach … I fully feel every emotion, and I’d like to grow in that space where I always have emotion be my ally, but I’d like to have a little more control of it and it have a little less control of me a la the great Larry Bird.”

Mark Pope shouts at his team during BYU’s win over San Diego State on Nov. 10. (BYU photo)

A share of Pope’s boldness — and sense of humor — can likely be traced back to Karl. “George has this brash optimism, belief and creativity, he’s just not afraid of failing. He challenges his courage to try new things.

“I can call George from time to time, and he’ll tell me all the things I’m doing wrong,” Pope laughs.

And then there’s Pitino. Perhaps no one has better prepared Pope for the Big 12 gauntlet than Slick Rick.

“He just wins at everything,” Pope says of his famed college instructor. “(He’s) a coach that’s been through the fire a thousand times and keeps resurrecting himself in a beautiful way. He’s incredible about his refusal to get down, get discouraged or get distracted, and he refuses to let his confidence be impacted by anything that might beset him. He’s always working toward a constructive new plan. He’s been one of the most successful coaches in the history of any sport, even with the number of times he’s had to reinvent himself and take on a new challenge, and he’s gonna do the same thing at St. John’s.

“If there was one thing I could steal from him and would like to emulate, especially this season, it’s his ability to keep forging forward.”

Shades of Pitino’s relentless flair have been evident in Pope’s recent efforts. Basketball in the Big 12 is practically a different sport than the West Coast Conference, and BYU’s staff knew they’d have to reinvent and refresh their approach to adapt. That’s where analytics come into play.

“Being an underdog in the Big 12, we’re always trying to find the little edges within analytics and their application that might gain us an extra win or two,” says Keegan Brown, BYU’s director of video and analytics strategy. “We’re trying to introduce as much chaos and variance into a game that can allow us to knock off a Kansas, Texas Tech or Baylor.”

According to Brown, analytics are the “lifeblood” of Pope’s program. “He’s all about the numbers and having specific goals while making sure everything can be measurable to hold ourselves accountable, that way there’s a way to have a certain set of responsibilities and accountability to each other.”

Offensive efficiency has been the prime analytical focus. Brown and the rest of Pope’s staff determined their personnel would benefit most from a high volume of 3-pointers while emphasizing transition opportunities and dominating the offensive glass, crafting a new-look scheme to match what the data suggested.

It’s working.

The Cougars have scored 1.31 points per transition possession while grabbing 38.7% of the offensive boards. They’re launching a mind-boggling 33 3-pointers each game, connecting on 39.2% of them due to the quality looks teammates are creating for each other. This same team that ranked 86th in scoring, 118th in effective shooting, 43rd in rebounding and 64th in assists a season ago now weighs in at fourth (91.9 points), sixth (59.0 eFG%), fifth (45.6 rebounds) and second (22.4 assists) nationally.

“We’ve got a lot of big time shooters,” Austin says. “All these (Big 12) teams can score a lot of points, and I think we’ll be able to hold our own offensively. Our pace of play will bode well for the Big 12, being able to play fast and not allow defenses to set up.”

Jaxson Robinson launches a 3-pointer against Fresno State on Dec. 1. (BYU photo)

Such improvement isn’t from any sort of roster overhaul or portal influx. Aside from adding 87 total Khalifa minutes, BYU has basically rolled out the same squad as last year. Transfers Dawson Baker and Marcus Adams, Jr. are either injured or not yet eligible. Both would clearly help the Cougars, but the incumbent group is still clobbering opponents by an average of 32.8 points per night— an impressive margin no matter the level of competition. BYU’s age has become its most precious asset.

“In college basketball, if you’re old, you have the best chance of winning,” says Brown.

Being old also breeds resilience. Big 12 basketball is “mental warfare,” to use Fueger’s words. Maturity is essential, especially considering the turbulence looming ahead. No one can afford to lose control of their emotions.

“We’re gonna come with more urgency than we’ve ever had,” Pope says. “But on the flip side, we’re gonna be a little bit less tied to the emotional response of results and we’re gonna focus on the constructive side of results.”

The topic of these new conference challenges prompts a number of different players and coaches to mention Iowa State. Last year’s Cyclones suffered a late slide, dropping seven of their final 10 contests to close out the regular season… but still earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. The example isn’t given as a cop-out or excuse to shrug off losing, but rather to detail just how steep the standard is in this league. One bad loss isn’t the death sentence for postseason hopes like it was in the WCC.

“We’re in a way different beast right now,” says Pope. “This is like, can you take a (loss) or two or three in a row and still get up with the same amount of confidence or passion? That’s gonna be a new experience for our team, a new experience for our fanbase … It’s this idea of us being able to get knocked down, have misfortune, face challenges … but keep getting up with joy, passion and confidence.”

A No. 1 NET ranking by itself isn’t enough to stay afloat against Big 12 teams. Time in the lab is understandably crucial.

The team files down the annex stairs to begin the afternoon’s practice. For as intense as film study was, getting out on the floor for the players is as freeing as a dog running out into a spacious backyard. It’s been a long week — it’s only Thursday — but there’s genuine joy in the gym today.

“We’re trying to have our practices be as competitive as possible and emphasize playing with physicality in a smart, disruptive way without fouling,” Robinson says. Yet again, it’s working. BYU has the best defense of Pope’s tenure and never strays into foul trouble. These Cougars are a tough, scrappy bunch. With top rebounder Fousseyni Traore injured and sidelined indefinitely, every member of the rotation has turned into a full-blown savage in the paint, especially Waterman, whose rebounding average has jumped to 6.8 from 2.8 last year.

Shooting drills will headline this practice. The staff splits up, with Fueger taking the spot shooters, Fennell handling the guards, Robinson manning the wings and Pope supervising the bigs. Balls soar across the gym, with players laughing as they make contested buckets over each other. At this moment, the annex is devoid of anxiety. The expectations, stress and weight of student-athlete life are invisible. It’s just a game, it’s just basketball. It’s refreshing.

Personalities prevail in practice. Stewart squawks like a bird after beating Saunders down the lane for two. Waterman, Robinson and Atiki Ally Atiki loudly object to a change in the soundtrack, clapping once their complaints result in a different rap selection. Khalifa remains stone-faced after a convincing swat, although Pope bursts into giddy, fan-like delight.

“Give it up for Aly, everybody!” Pope exclaims for everyone in the gym to hear. Practices like these give Pope the chance to entertain. As much as he wants his players to stay humble, focused and driven, Pope also wants to keep them loose with laughter when appropriate.

“You’re able to be personal with him, his door is always open,” Knell says of Pope. “It’s great to go see the coaching staff, joke around a little bit, but then get to business. It’s a really good dynamic.”

Mark Pope entertains BYU fans at Midnight Madness on Oct. 13. (BYU photo)

While known to goof around his players, belt Taylor Swift lyrics in front of thousands of students or do his best duck impression for a dozen local media members, Pope didn’t always enjoy such fearless, endearing swagger. His showmanship was born out of the decision to bury his shyness.

As a youngster growing up in the east Seattle suburbs, Pope hated giving class presentations. Public speaking was daunting. The butterflies of playing in big games were overwhelming, leaving him feeling twisted up inside.

The 6-foot-10 Pope has grown in much more than height since then. Rather than run from the uncomfortable, he’s learned to embrace it, to crave it. “Chasing discomfort” is more than a mantra for Pope— it’s become a source of joy.

“I like being scared,” Pope says. “I like taking on big challenges, I like uncertainty and I like the chaos of those moments when you’re at the edge of the cliff looking over and you’ve got to take that next step. I’m addicted to it. It’s where you get to experience life.”

Pope’s appetite for adrenaline has made him the perfect man to lead BYU into the Big 12, especially as the assignment has become increasingly complicated. Once believed to be the weakest among their new conference foes, the Cougars have made the loudest of early season statements. They’ve accomplished a great deal in a short amount of time to send expectations flying through the roof. The pressure has grown even stronger. The team is garnering all sorts of national attention. Some are choosing to buy into the hype, others are waiting for some sort of downfall. It’s the largest target on the program’s back since the days of Jimmermania.

All are just new, exciting obstacles for Pope to overcome.

“I love a comfortable day, although we have them rarely, but a comfortable day is not life,” Pope says. “It’s not living, it’s not growing, it’s not the joy you get from growing. Right now we’re getting that on steroids, and I love every bit of it.”

The Marriott Center’s hallowed halls have housed plenty of basketball royalty over the past half-century.

Pope isn’t a BYU alum, but he’s well aware of the storied hoops tradition in Provo. He occasionally reaches out to a pair of his predecessors — Dave Rose and Roger Reid — for guidance throughout the program’s Big 12 transition. After all, it wouldn’t have even been possible without the effort and sacrifice of those who labored before him.

“We are definitely standing on the shoulders of unbelievable coaches and players who allowed us this opportunity,” Pope says. “We didn’t earn our way here, we were gifted this opportunity. It’s really important for all of our players and staff to realize that.”

As the team closes out the day’s practice with a full court scrimmage inside this venerable venue, another legend enters the building. Donning expensive sneakers and armed with a Sodalicious drink in hand, Dwyane Wade struts into the gym alongside Jazz majority owner Ryan Smith, parking themselves courtside to catch the ending action.

The players are stunned, but none more than Stewart. Wade is wearing the jacket he created for him.

For a brief moment, Wade’s arrival adds a bit of visible tension to the scrimmage. No one wants to look like a fool in front of such esteemed company. Luckily for everyone, the jitters are gone quickly, keeping the players calm and collected as Wade offers a post-practice pep talk.

Dwyane Wade stands alongside Spencer Johnson as he addresses the Cougars following practice. (BYU photo)

A sentimental Wade longs for his playing days, urging the Cougars to make the most of every last moment they can claim this game. “I miss being able to talk a little trash, which I did to Mark back in the day,” he jokes, motioning to a chuckling Pope.

“This ball can do things for you that you’d never imagine,” Wade testifies. “Don’t take it for granted.”

The players, coaches, Wade and Smith huddle together to end practice with a “gratitude circle.” A few of them will be put on the spot to declare something they’re grateful for that day.

Smith is grateful for meaningful relationships. Fueger is grateful for the team’s grad assistants. Johnson is grateful for one last season to go down swinging with his teammates.

Hearts are full as the team breaks down practice with one final chant. No one knows how far these Cougars will travel this year, but moments like these will help them get there. It’s the brotherhood, the bond and the love that produces a resilient product.

BYU huddles up prior to tip-off against Houston Christian on Nov. 6. (BYU photo)

As the day’s official activities are adjourned, some members of the team begin mingling with a group of corporate sponsors and their families who were present for practice. Wade signs autographs, while players and coaches take selfies and shoot around with some of the younger children in attendance.

“Corporate sponsors, you better believe we deliver now,” Pope lightheartedly proclaims on his way out. “You’ll only get this kind of treatment here at BYU.”

There’s no place quite like BYU, and Pope knows it. From the arena’s cavernous ceiling above his head hangs a row of banners, each reflecting a different aspect of Cougar prestige. Conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances are listed. All-Americans, retired jerseys and Hall of Famers are recognized.

To be immortalized in the rafters is to be remembered forever. Raising another victory banner is what drives the decision to knock down office walls or unleash a radical offensive scheme. Yet, at BYU, it only makes up half of what Pope deems a “dual-mission.”

Amid all the early season hype, Big 12 anticipation and everything in between, just as Pope mentioned during film study, the Cougars will always be chasing something more. BYU’s vision will always be higher. It will always be bigger than basketball.

“We’re madly unique in college basketball; BYU athletics is one of a kind,” Pope says. “It’s our job to fully wake up this sleeping giant and let the whole world see the greatness of what BYU is destined to be because of who we are. That’s what we’re chasing.”

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