BYU Basketball Bringing ‘Joy To The Gym’ In Year Three Under Mark Pope

Oct 22, 2021, 1:05 AM
BYU Basketball - Te'Jon Lucas - Alex Barcello...
BYU’s Te’Jon Lucas, left, and Alex Barcello laugh during practice at the Marriott Center in Provo on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
(Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

PROVO, Utah – The Mark Pope era for BYU basketball has had a few common themes. One, the Cougars have had a knack for exceeding preseason expectations as they’ve finished in the AP Top 25 poll the past two years. Two, COVID-19 has had an impact on each of Pope’s three years at BYU.

The 2020 season had the NCAA Tournament taken away by the virus. Last year was probably the most challenging yet as they played an entire season amidst the global pandemic. Games were canceled while BYU was in the air traveling to a destination. Players competed in empty venues. Many workouts took place in isolation, taking away the camaraderie that comes with being on a team.

It was a grind last season.

The pandemic made joy an even bigger priority

Despite the grind, BYU still pieced together a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament and finished second in the WCC behind only national runner-up Gonzaga. But it didn’t come easily, both physically and mentally.

After going through an arduous season, this year has given everyone in Mark Pope’s BYU basketball program a renewed perspective. Bring joy to the gym.

“We talked with [the players] a lot this summer. Last year was really tough. …There were so many things consuming us with COVID, newness, challenges, expectations, and changing schedules,” said Mark Pope. “My joy in the gym [last year], the guys graded me out as a D-minus, universally. So, it’s important. Its got to be fun. We have to bring joy to this gym. It’s been a hallmark of our program since we’ve been together as a staff. We did a poor job of that last year. So it’s something we’re really focused on.”

BYU basketball experienced issues with COVID already this season

The joy in the gym likely keeps Mark Pope’s team level-headed if anything gets thrown their way with COVID-19 again. They already had COVID impact their “secret scrimmage” over the weekend against Cal from the Pac-12 Conference out in the Bay Area.

“We’re kind of building into practices, meetings, and building into trying to grow this skillset of like, ‘hey, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but let’s go with it.’ …We just had a private scrimmage. It turned out that because of some vaccination policies, some COVID-related things that we just found out a couple of days before, we couldn’t take our whole roster. So we took a little bit of a limited roster. We spent zero time bemoaning the fact that it wasn’t our full team. We’re just like, ‘hey, this is how we move on. We go on and now we’re going to go find a way to win this way.'”

Newcomers such as Milwaukee grad transfer guard Te’Jon Lucas have wasted no time buying into the mantra of bringing joy to the gym. The playmaking guard who drew comparisons to BYU’s version of Magic Johnson by teammates is all in.

“A lot of times, we get caught up in the business side of it; it’s like a day job for us. So we just try to bring joy in the gym and make sure we’re having fun with this at the same time as you know, executing and trying to win games,” Lucas said to KSL Sports.

BYU will look to bring their joy in games starting with the season opener against defending Horizon League Champion Cleveland State on November 9, a challenging non-conference slate, and the tall order of trying to take down juggernaut Gonzaga in the WCC.

“This joy in the gym culture is really huge for me,” Pope said. “I might have been functioning at a high level in a normal situation. As a staff, we have to quadruple our efforts to make that a reality. Super important [to have joy in the gym].”

Mitch Harper is a BYU Insider for and host of the Cougar Tracks Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and Cougar Sports Saturday (Saturday from 12–3 p.m.) on KSL Newsradio. Follow him on Twitter: @Mitch_Harper.

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