How player retention, a passing wizard from Egypt, relentless 3-point shooting, and bonding in Europe got BYU into the Big Dance

BYU players react excitedly from the bench during game with TCU at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 2, 2024.
BYU players react excitedly from the bench during game with TCU at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, March 2, 2024.

No one is exactly sure whose idea it was to have BYU’s basketball players switch roommates every night during last summer’s trip to Italy and Croatia.

“I just know it was a stroke of genius,” said guard Richie Saunders. “It worked perfectly.”

“I think we were super close to breaking through last year, closer than some people think. A lot of people don’t realize that. We all knew we had to get better, stay together, and the breakthrough would come.”

BYU guard Dallin Hall

Instead of players rooming with the same teammate the entire trip, and gravitating toward friends and those whom they had the most in common, “every person got to know every person, got to talk to them, hang out with them, bond with them, get to understand them on a deeper level,” Saunders said. “We truly became a team.”

Players and coaches alike say a bond was formed, any cliques that existed from the previous season melted away, and there was a greater sense of unity than had ever existed before.

“We all got super close,” said point guard Dallin Hall. “Our trust in one another was strengthened, our relationships were strengthened, our friendships became tighter, and I think that all translates to the court.”

Senior guard Spencer Johnson, who two years earlier had made an impassioned plea on social media for the Cougars to stick together and stay the course after some teammates hit the transfer portal, said it was during a loss to a top European pro team, Zadar, in Croatia that he realized the Cougars were going to have a successful first season in the Big 12. That was true, Johnson believed, even though it was pretty much the same team that went 7-9 in the West Coast Conference in the 2022–23 season and placed fifth in that league for the second-straight year.

Transfers Aly Khalifa (knee) and Dawson Baker (ankle) made the European trip, but were held out of every game due to nagging injuries and to err on the side of caution.

“We won our first two games in Italy pretty easily, but then we went and played the No. 1 team in Croatia, a bunch of pros. And they were really good, a bunch of grown men,” Johnson said. “I want to say we had a tiny lead at halftime. We were like, ‘Dang, we are a really good team.’ There was a lot of stuff that happened, and we ended up losing that game (80-57), but I think it dawned on us that we can be really special if we keep this rolling.”

Johnson said the team went “straight off the airplane” from the U.S. to a game in Italy and walloped an outfit called Orange 1 Bassano 100-64, then faced a real test a few days later against one of the top teams in Italy, Pallancanestro Trieste.

It was in that 84-73 win in Trieste that Jaxson Robinson, recently named Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year, showed that he was on the verge of emerging as a big-time star.

“Jaxson played really well in that game. I think he hit two or three 30-footers (and scored 26 points),” Johnson said. “He just played really, really well. I think everyone could see at that point that all the hard work he had put in over the summer had paid off. It was super cool. We were all super stoked for him.”

Having averaged 8.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 2022-23, Robinson improved his numbers across the board this season in helping BYU make the NCAA Tournament — the Cougars will play Duquesne on Thursday in Omaha, Nebraska — and is one of many players who made marked improvement, along with Noah Waterman, Saunders, Hall and Fousseyni Traore.

Johnson said the familiarity with one another is another big reason for BYU’s success, as the Cougars earned the No. 5 seed in the Big 12 tournament.

During the 90-88 win over UCF at the Marriott Center last month, Johnson said he drove the baseline and, after two Knights collapsed on him, he used that familiarity to produce a positive result.

“I either had to dump it off to Fouss, or I had to throw it to the corner,” he said. “There wasn’t anyone in the corner yet, but I knew if I threw it someone was going to be there. I just threw it, and Jaxson ended up filling in to the corner really late. So it is just stuff like that. I think we just get each other.”

Retaining top players, staying the course

BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope looks over practice on the university’s campus on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023.
BYU basketball coach Mark Pope looks over practice on the university’s campus on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023, prior to the team taking an overseas trip. | Nate Edwards/BYU Photo

There was a lot of gnashing of teeth and hand-wringing after the Cougars lost 76-69 to No. 16 Saint Mary’s last March in a WCC semifinal game and failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the second-straight season. Some outsiders, and even some fans and media members, questioned whether four-year head coach Mark Pope was the right man to take BYU into a much tougher basketball conference, the Big 12. Nonconference losses to Utah Valley and South Dakota and WCC regular-season losses to Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara (twice), in particular, were hard to swallow. The program appeared to be regressing after Pope’s first two seasons at BYU were rousing successes and the third produced a respectable 25-11 record and two wins in the NIT.

Pope and his staff had started a transition to a more free-wheeling, 3-point shooting style the previous year at the urging of four-year director of player personnel Keegan Brown, an analytics expert, but a lot of it wasn’t working.

Better passers, more point guard help and another big man were needed, for instance. But Pope and company saw a lot of potential with their current group — if they could keep them around and out of the transfer portal.

Rudi Williams and Gideon George ran out of eligibility, while rising sophomores Hao Dong, Tanner Toolson and Braeden Moore decided to move on to the Shanghai Sharks, Utah Valley and Oral Roberts, respectively. But the nucleus returned, prompting big sighs of relief in Provo.

“Retention is everything, and with this new NIL space, we knew the best-case scenario was us keeping the guys that have been here, understanding what we are trying to do, and kind of build off what we did in 2023 and just get better this summer and with this European trip.”

BYU assistant coach Cody Fueger

“Retention is everything, and with this new NIL space, we knew the best-case scenario was us keeping the guys that have been here, understanding what we are trying to do, and kind of build off what we did in 2023 and just get better this summer and with this European trip,” said assistant coach Cody Fueger, who has been with Pope for nine seasons, four at Utah Valley and five at BYU. “Retention is always going to be a big key in college basketball. We really feel that way.”

While acknowledging that the 2022-23 season “was obviously a tough one,” Fueger said the staff continued to believe in their guys.

“We knew we had some really good pieces. We knew they were young and they were jelling together,” Fueger said. “There were some things we knew we should be happy about. Like, we were in every game. We were a top 50 defensive team. We knew we were a good passing team, but we wanted to become better passers, shooters and ball-sharers, especially with how we wanted to play offensively. We knew we needed a couple dynamic players to help us play that way.”

One player who appreciated the confidence showed in him, despite not having a good year in 2022-23, was 6-foot-10 power forward Noah Waterman.

“Coach (Pope) said he believed in me, saw growth and potential in me, said I could do more to help the team,” Waterman said, recalling a conversation from last April. “I only went home to New York for a week, then came back and was here for the rest of the summer. Because we did not have a good season, I wanted to be around the guys and build chemistry and all that. For me, it all started last summer, when I re-dedicated myself to getting better.”

All eyes on the Egyptian Magician

Aly Khalifa’s first two questions after BYU was the second school to contact him in the transfer portal, shortly after he got off the phone with Florida: “Where is BYU, and what league is it in?”

Having played at Charlotte in Conference USA (the 49ers began playing in the AAC in 2023-24) for two seasons, the 6-foot-11 Khalifa hit the transfer portal looking for a change of scenery and perhaps some coaching that could get the native of Alexandria, Egypt, who prepped at the NBA Global Academy in Canberra, Australia, to the NBA.

He said he was initially skeptical when BYU assistant coach Nick Robinson called, until Robinson told him the Cougars were heading to the Big 12.

“I wanted to test myself against the best,” Khalifa said. “That really caught my interest. I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to learn more about this place.’ We set up a Zoom call and I came on a visit. I loved it. It was really cool.”

Khalifa recalled watching BYU play on TV against Saint Mary’s in Provo last spring, and had thought to himself, “Wow, I have always wanted to play in front of a crowd like that.”

BYU center Aly Khalifa celebrates a 3-pointer during a Big 12 conference tournament game against UCF in Kansas City, Mo., on Wednesday, March 13, 2024. BYU won 87-73.

Then he told a few friends and teammates he was considering BYU, “and they looked at me like I was crazy,” said the devout Muslim, who is fasting during daylight hours the remainder of the month to observe Ramadan.

“They had these narratives and all this stuff about BYU and they thought I was clueless,” Khalifa said. “I had a friend who played for (Salt Lake Community College) and even he was like, ‘Are you sure you want to live in Utah?’ I was like, ‘What is wrong with Utah?’”

From BYU’s perspective, Fueger said that the aforementioned analytics guru Brown pushed the coaching staff to take a hard look at Khalifa, even though he was a bit portly, somewhat out of shape due to some lingering knee soreness, and not the most athletic player in the country. Not even close to that.

“But his passing ability just jumped out at you ... he could really pass,” Fueger said. “He looked like the big man we were looking for.”

And he’s been exactly that — pairing with the bullish, broad-shouldered Traore to give BYU perhaps the most unique combination of post players in the country.

Names haven’t changed, but games have

One of the more remarkable aspects to BYU’s big turnaround in 2024 — from fifth in the WCC to fifth in the Big 12, a 23-10 overall record and No. 12 NET ranking — is that it is pretty much the same team. Khalifa, of course, has been the key addition, and sharpshooter Trevin Knell didn’t play at all last year as he recovered from shoulder surgery.

“I think we were super close to breaking through last year, closer than some people think,” Hall said. “A lot of people don’t realize that. We all knew we had to get better, stay together, and the breakthrough would come.”

And it has — against a much more difficult schedule. The Cougars had a 2-11 record in Quadrant 1 and Quadrant 2 games last year. They are 11-10 in those games this year, including a 6-8 record in Quad 1 games.

It makes one wonder what BYU would have done if injuries hadn’t sidelined a couple other additions — UC Irvine guard Dawson Baker and freshman Marcus Adams Jr., who originally signed with Kansas before briefly going to Gonzaga.

Another would-be contributor, Samford grad transfer Ques Glover, signed with BYU and practiced with the Cougars during the summer, then moved on to Kansas State, but was injured and didn’t play for the Wildcats this season.

“With this transfer portal era, it is so fluid. We knew we needed another big, we needed another guard to help (Hall) that could play the one or the two,” Fueger said. “We were looking for some more scoring from the three or four spot, with kind of how our roster was constructed. We knew we were looking for those specific guys.”

Glover would have been the former, while Baker and/or Adams the latter. When Glover left for KSU and versions from Pope and KSU coach Jerome Tang differed as to why, it was seemingly a huge blow to the Cougars’ postseason chances. Turns out, it was much ado about nothing.

“When it happened, you are kind of frustrated at the moment. But then you are like, ‘OK, this is our roster, this is our team, we know what guys we have. We know we gotta get better,’” Fueger said. “It was kind of like (addition) by subtraction, like, we are going to come out of this thing better because we got guys on this team that are playing for each other.”

Going all in on 3-pointers, pinpoint passers

Obviously, the biggest win came on Feb. 27, when they beat No. 7 Kansas 76-68 at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, handing the Jayhawks their first and only home loss of the season. It was fitting that BYU beat KU with 13 3-pointers, on 34 attempts, because leaning more heavily on the 3-pointer was the way the Cougars said they would compete in the so-called best college basketball conference in the country.

The victory that really injected belief into Pope’s stated goal of taking at least 35 3-pointers a game came on Nov. 10, the second game of the season, against a San Diego State team that played in the national championship game last year. The Cougars were 10 of 27 from 3-point range and beat the defense-minded Aztecs 74-65 in Provo.

BYU guard Spencer Johnson holds up three fingers after making a 3-pointer in victory over San Diego State at BYU’s Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023.
Brigham Young Cougars guard Spencer Johnson (20) holds up three fingers after scoring in the game against San Diego State at BYU’s Marriott Center in Provo on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

There have been low points when the reliance on the triple has hurt the Cougars — such as the road losses at Kansas State and Oklahoma State and last week’s Big 12 tournament quarterfinal loss to Texas Tech — but for the most part, the strategy, combined with an assault on the offensive glass the Cougars call “wedging” and borrowed from a team in Australia, has worked marvelously.

BYU enters the NCAA Tournament No. 2 in the country in 3-point attempts per game (32.2) and 3-pointers per game (11.2). Only North Florida (16-16) shoots and makes more 3s than BYU.

Fueger said Pope has always believed in the 3-pointer as a way to narrow talent gaps.

“Even at UVU, we were such a 3-point happy team,” he said. “That was instilled in coach Pope by coach (Rick) Pitino. So 3-pointers have always been a huge part of his coaching. … We knew this year, that would be even more the case, coming into the Big 12.”

As BYU’s de facto coach of the offense, Fueger came up with the goal of shooting at least 35 3s a game, which turned out to be more difficult than it sounds. Texas, for instance, did everything it could to take away the outside bombs, crowding the Cougars on the perimeter.

So BYU went inside to the burly Traore, who scored 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and the Cougars took an 84-72 win.

“I want our guys to be fearless shooting the 3s because it is so important to how we play. We are going to miss some. That’s part of this thing. But with our aggressiveness and fearlessness, that is going to open up everything else for us to get layups,” Fueger said. “That’s just a huge part of it.”

Pope’s passwords to power: faith and urgency

A year ago on the opening day of the NCAA Tournament, BYU called a news conference via Zoom after the 19-15 season and more than one reporter believed a big announcement regarding Pope’s future was in the works.

Nothing of the sort happened, but it was clear that changes were needed.

Pope talked about his desire to see more urgency and faith in the program, and hinted that the aforementioned changes to the Cougars’ playing style were also in the works.

It’s safe to say that those goals have been realized, for the most part, as BYU gets back into the Big Dance for the first time since 2021, a foray than ended in a disappointing loss to UCLA in Indianapolis when the Cougars were also a No. 6 seed.

Could history repeat itself? BYU’s NCAA Tournament history has been less than stellar, but Pope continues to urge belief and confidence, faith and urgency.

“That was such a different team, and such a different time, and such a different pathway to get into the tournament,” Pope said Sunday after the bids were announced. “We will just continue to prepare exactly the way that we have been preparing all year long. I got a lot of confidence in our guys. We will take a big swing at it with this year’s group the way we have been doing it all year.”

Swinging for the fences — a notion that was hatched a couple years ago and really put into effect this season — has got the Cougars this far, when very few believed it was possible even six short months ago when they were picked to finish 13th in the 14-team Big 12.

So why stop now?

Mark Pope
Jaxson Robinson
BYU coach Mark Pope speaks with Jaxson Robinson during game against Baylor, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, in Provo, Utah. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press