The Mark Pope era of BYU men’s basketball began with one of the best seasons in program history – highlighted by a top-25 ranking for the first time since 2011, 24 wins, a nine-game win streak and a likely single-digit bid in the NCAA Tournament. The season was abruptly cut short before the tournament due to the rapidly evolving circumstances related to the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s so humbling as a coach when you have players who are willing to sacrifice for each other and give their trust to our staff and to fight every day,” Pope said. “It’s the most inspiring thing to see these guys accomplish things they weren’t sure they could do. To finish in the top 20, No. 9 in the NET, with such epic wins, to get to witness that together and experience it together is the best part of sports. That is what this season means to me, that we got to share that together.”
Seven seniors led the way for the Cougars, who finished No. 18/16 in the final AP and USA Today Coaches Polls, as Yoeli Childs (22.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg), TJ Haws (14.0 ppg, 5.8 apg) and Jake Toolson (15.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) garnered All-West Coast Conference First Team honors. Childs was a top-5 finalist for the Karl Malone Power Forward of the Year Award, Haws earned a spot on the CoSIDA Academic All-America Third Team and Toolson was the WCC Newcomer of the Year.
Fellow seniors Dalton Nixon (7.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and Zac Seljaas (6.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) provided hustle, scoring, leadership and experience off the bench and made key plays throughout the season. Evan Troy and Taylor Maughan played key roles on the scout team all year.
Junior Alex Barcello (9.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg) transferred to BYU from Arizona in the summer and received a waiver to play right away. He started all 32 games and provided excellent shooting, stout defense and leadership throughout the season. Sophomores Connor Harding (6.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and Kolby Lee (7.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg) made significant contributions and showed marked improvement from their freshman seasons. Gavin Baxter sacrificed a redshirt season, returning from a shoulder injury to play in the final seven games with hopes of helping his team make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
BYU was one of the top offensive teams in the country and had the numbers to prove it. The Cougars were top five in several categories, including 3-point field goal percentage (1st), assist/turnover ratio (2nd), field goal percentage (3rd), 3-point field goals per game (4th) and assists per game (5th). Jake Toolson was second in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage and was one of five Cougars to shoot 44.0 percent or better from long range for the season.
Pope was hired as the head men’s basketball coach on April 10, 2019, and got to work quickly, assembling his staff and finalizing the roster. In August, the Cougars embarked on a tour of Italy where they won four games and gained valuable experience in preparation for the 2019-20 season.
Despite the absence of Childs (nine-game NCAA suspension) and Baxter (shoulder injury) from day one, Pope and the Cougars got off to a strong start, earning home wins over Cal State Fullerton and Southern Utah with a close loss to San Diego State in between. The Aztecs finished the season ranked No. 4.
BYU then ventured out on the road for a game at Houston, a team that finished the season No. 22 in the polls. The Cougars led throughout before Houston took a one-point lead in the game’s final minute. With 5.1 seconds to go, Harding inbounded the ball to Haws who took it down the right side of the court as the clock wound down. He pulled up and shot a fadeaway jumper as the buzzer sounded. The ball hit the front of the rim, bounced straight up and dropped through the net to give BYU the one-point win at 72-71.
After a tough loss at Boise State, the Cougars made their way to Hawaii for the Maui Jim Maui Invitational. BYU opened the tournament with a decisive 78-63 win over UCLA in which Toolson scored 20 points and the Cougars shot an impressive 62 percent from the field. In the second game BYU hung with Kansas – the No. 4 at the time and No. 1 at the end of the season – for a half before falling 71-56. In the third-place game, the Cougars defeated Virginia Tech 90-77 and tied the school record with 17 3-pointers.
Childs returned two games later at in-state rival Utah and came out on fire, hitting 12 of 16 shots for 29 points. He missed the majority of the second half due to cramps and Utah rallied to win 102-95 in overtime. But with a more complete roster, the Cougars strung together six-straight wins, including blowout victories against UNLV and Nevada and a dramatic 68-64 win against Utah State in the Beehive Classic. Against the Aggies, BYU led by one when Barcello drained a 3-pointer with 27 seconds on the clock, helping the Cougars withstand a late Utah State push and win 68-64.
Wins over Weber State and Oral Roberts closed out the nonconference schedule. The Cougars opened league play with a dominant home win over Loyola Marymount, 63-38. Before heading out to play at WCC rival Saint Mary’s, Childs suffered an open dislocation in his right index finger, sidelining him for the next two weeks. During that time, BYU lost in overtime at Saint Mary’s before putting together back-to-back blowouts of Portland and San Diego at home. Before Childs returned, the Cougars fell at No. 2 Gonzaga.
In his first game coming off the finger injury, Childs teamed up with Toolson to lead BYU to a 74-60 win at Pacific. Childs had 26 points and nine boards while Toolson hit six 3-pointers and scored a career-best 28 points. After a heartbreaking loss at San Francisco, the Cougars emerged a more determined team, winning nine-straight games – a program best win streak in league play since joining the West Coast Conference.
The streak began with a 107-80 home win against Pepperdine that saw the Cougars hit 17 of 28 from 3-point range. Two nights later, BYU defeated Saint Mary’s in one of the most thrilling games of the season. After leading 43-40 at the half, the Cougars fell behind by as many as eight in the second half. Trailing by four with 1:30 to go, BYU hit 3 of 4 from the free-throw line and got a pair of stops. After a timeout with 16 seconds on the clock, Haws came off a screen and hit a deep 3 from the top of the key, giving the Cougars an 81-79 lead with 9 seconds to go. On the ensuing possession, Saint Mary’s rebounded its own miss but Seljaas blocked the final shot and grabbed the rebound to secure the win. Haws and his wife Lauren then headed to the hospital for the birth of their first child, son Tyson Ralph Haws, who entered the world the next day.
BYU won four of the next five by double figures before a showdown with No. 2 Gonzaga with the only close call coming at San Diego. The Cougars trailed by one late in the game when Haws found Childs for the go-ahead alley-oop dunk with 11 seconds on the clock for the 72-71 win. Following the San Diego win, BYU entered the AP Top-25 for the first time at No. 23.
The Gonzaga game was senior night and was played in front of a soldout crowd of 18,987 in the Marriott Center. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-8 lead before the Cougars settled down and went on a 13-4 run to take their first lead of the game. Three-point shots by Toolson and Haws in the final 2:30 helped BYU create some separation and the Cougars led 46-38 at the half.
Five-straight points by Lee helped BYU open up a 58-44 lead with 17 minutes remaining but Gonzaga did not back down. Over the next 10 minutes, the Bulldogs slowly chipped away at the lead and pulled within two at 70-68. Seljaas scored seven of BYU’s next nine points and Barcello hit a 3 to help create separation at 82-74. The Cougars remained in control over the final four minutes and won 91-78, the program’s first win over a No. 2 team in the Marriott Center. Childs totaled 28 points and 10 boards to earn his first WCC Player of the Week honor of the season.
“I challenge anybody in the world to find me an example of a more epic senior night,” Pope said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a senior night ever in college basketball that had all the drama that had been building all season long and over the last four years. It was an incredible night for our seniors and for this program.”
Ranked No. 17 in the AP Poll and No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches Poll following the Gonzaga win, BYU closed out the regular season with an 81-64 win at Pepperdine, highlighted by Childs’ career-best 38 points to go with 14 rebounds. He was named the WCC Player of the Week for the second-straight week and BYU moved up to No. 15 in the rankings.
After a week off and a slight shift in the polls, the No. 14/16 Cougars played Saint Mary’s in the semifinals of the WCC Tournament and lost 51-50 on a last-second shot by Jordan Ford. Despite the setback, BYU was optimistic of receiving a single-digit seed in the 2020 NCAA Tournament thanks to a strong resume that featured a No. 9 ranking in the NET and high placement in several other metrics. On March 12, the NCAA canceled all of its winter and spring championships for the rest of the season due to the rapidly evolving circumstances related to the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s so much to take in,” Pope said. “They have been working towards this specific goal of making the tournament now for four and five years. So many of them made declarative statements that we were going to get back to the tournament and get things done. These guys have been pounding this for a long time in a very specific way with a ton of setbacks and they actually got it, they did the work. It was just a matter of celebrating Selection Sunday and seeing where we were going to go.
“The moments this basketball team got to experience this year, the epic moments and incredible storylines, all the things we got to share with each other and the fans, it almost seems selfish to be sad that we didn’t get more. We can and should go on and on talking about the incredible experiences that we shared together. It’ll be sweeter and sweeter for the rest of our lives.”
BYU finished the season 24-8 overall, 13-3 in the WCC and No. 18/16 in the AP and USA Today Coaches Polls.
Pope discusses the accomplishments and abrupt end of the 2019-20 season on BYUtv Sports Nation