Now that BYU basketball’s 12-year membership in the West Coast Conference is over, the next time the Cougars take the floor in November, they’ll be official members of the Big 12 Conference — the nation’s top-rated basketball conference.
“I really believe deep down that Pope and his staff will turn this thing around and there’s going to be a lot of good that comes out of this. I believe it because I’ve seen it before.” — former BYU player Tyler Haws
Want proof that it’s the best league?
Seven of the 10 Big 12 teams earned NCAA Tournament bids Sunday. Regular-season champion Kansas earned a No. 1 seed; Big 12 tournament title winner Texas received a No. 2 seed; Baylor and Kansas State were awarded No. 3 seeds; Iowa State and TCU captured No. 6 seeds; and West Virginia is a No. 9 seed.
The Big 12 tied its own record as the only conference to place 70% of its teams in the Big Dance. It’s the seventh time that’s happened since 2010.
On top of that, Big 12 teams have won the last two national championships (Baylor in 2021 and Kansas in 2022). Big 12 teams have played in the past four Final Fours and the past three national championship games.
And Houston, which will join the Big 12 next season along with BYU, is also a No. 1 seed.
Eleven of the 14 programs that will comprise the Big 12 next season are participating in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.
This season marked just the third time BYU (19-15) hasn’t participated in either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT (not including the canceled 2020 NCAA Tournament) during the past 20 years.
Being a member of this league is a challenge that Cougar coach Mark Pope and his staff have been looking forward to, and preparing for, since September 2021, when the Big 12 announced that BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida would be added in the summer of 2023.
Reality is, the Cougars are expected to be in the bottom echelon of the league in men’s basketball. But BYU does boast the largest arena in the Big 12 — the 19,000-seat Marriott Center.
The Cougars will trade WCC road games in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Spokane and Portland for Big 12 locations like Waco, Lubbock, Fort Worth and Houston, Texas; Lawrence and Manhattan, Kansas; Stillwater, Oklahoma; Ames, Iowa and Cincinnati; Morgantown, West Virginia and Orlando.
BYU will trade playing in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas, at 9,500-seat Orleans Arena, for the Big 12’s 18,972-seat T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, site of the Big 12 tournament.
‘There was a possibility it could happen’
BYU’s invitation to the Big 12 was years — even decades — in the making. At various points since 1994 it appeared the Cougars would become members of the conference.
Rose was the head coach from 2005-19. During many of those years, there were high hopes around Provo that a Big 12 invitation could be extended.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it or thinking about it,” Rose said. “But there were a lot of conversations.”
In 2016, the Big 12 publicly explored expansion but ultimately decided not to add any new schools.
“We spent a couple of days in pretty serious anticipation of what the Big 12 was going to do,” Rose recalled about that time. “(Athletic director) Tom (Holmoe) called me one night and said, ‘We’re probably going to hear something tomorrow and it could go either way.’ He’d talked to quite a few ADs in the Big 12.
“For me, I wanted to say, ‘Well, what does Texas and Oklahoma think?’ It ended up where they didn’t expand and we weren’t invited and we carried on. (BYU deputy athletic director) Brian (Santiago) and I talked about it all the time between ourselves — what a challenge it would be for us if it were to happen because there was a possibility that someday it could happen. It actually did. We’ll see what happens now.”
‘It’s going to be a real challenge’
What was Rose’s reaction when he learned BYU would be going to the Big 12 in September 2021?
“The truth is, after you get past the excitement about how great it is that you get to compete on that stage, it’s now what?” he said. “How are we going to tackle this next challenge? I’m not involved in any of that. It’s not me. But I did spend quite a bit of time thinking, ‘What would I do if it were me and I was still running the program?
“The pressure would be immediately to go away from what you’ve done because you’ve got to increase your talent level and increase your size, speed and quickness and skill level, all of those things to compete at that level and then realize the challenges of BYU and how you make it fit,” Rose added. “That’s where Mark and his staff are right now, trying to figure out how to make the adjustment in their program to make the move to the Big 12.
“It’s going to be a real challenge. It’s not just that you’re going into a Power Five league. You’re going into the best basketball league by the numbers. All 12 teams in the top 100. That’s a real challenge when you’ve been in a league where maybe two or three have been in the top 100.”
Making an exciting, nerve-wracking jump
What makes Haws so nervous, and excited, about joining the Big 12?
“There might be eight teams from the Big 12 in the NCAA Tournament this year,” he said in late February. “That is an exciting and scary thing. That will be fun for Cougar Nation. Every night is a new opportunity to get a huge, Quad 1 win. That will be fun.
“I really believe deep down that Pope and his staff will turn this thing around and there’s going to be a lot of good that comes out of this. I believe it because I’ve seen it before. I’ve been in those locker rooms and film sessions with Pope and (assistant coach Cody) Fueger. Those guys are gym rats. They care about winning more than anybody. They lead people that way and expect people to get up to that mentality and level of winning.”
In BYU’s final season in the WCC, it finished in a tie for fifth and posted a losing record in league play. But Pope said even before the season began that he is taking the long view this season, establishing a foundation for the Big 12 era.
Haws is confident that Pope and his staff will figure out how to compete in this league.
“They’re going to turn it around. I believe they’re going to form the team they need to win in the Big 12. It may take some time. But they’re going to figure it out, one way or another. They’re going to prove people wrong and prove themselves right,” Haws said. “I know they believe they can do it. There’s a lot of criticism that’s being thrown around right now. It’s been a bumpy ride this year. But they have a good core group of players that are focused on getting better and learning.
“That’s a theme that continues … that this team is growing and learning and focused on getting better and committed to the process. I believe that. I believe they’re not making that as an excuse,” he continued. “They’re committed to figuring this thing out. They have the right group of core guys that believe in something special coming out of this. I’m excited. You want the biggest challenge out there and Pope says over and over that he’s not afraid of any challenge.
“If there’s anybody that can rally a group of guys to believe that they can do something special and win big games, it’s Pope. I’d run through a wall for that guy. I’d go to war with him any day. As an alumni and fan, I’m so excited about the plan moving forward, going into the Big 12.”
How will Big 12 membership impact recruiting?
Haws said BYU’s Big 12 membership will “absolutely” help its recruiting.
“It has to. There are going to be guys that they get that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. You’re playing in arguably the best basketball conference in the country. A big stage, a big opportunity. There’s going to be guys that will want to come and be part of BYU and play for coach Pope and develop on and off the court,” Haws said. “It takes a special player and person to want to come to BYU and get in line with coach Pope and his program and the culture he’s created.
“They’re going to go after some guys and get them. I really believe that. They already have. Look no further than Collin Chandler. He’s a top recruit. I believe they’ll get some guys. Recruiting is a weird landscape right now with NIL and the transfer portal,” he continued. “There’s a lot of uncertainty there. But I really believe BYU has the right leadership and the right people around that are going to keep pushing this ship forward and navigate these different waters to make progress in the recruiting landscape. That goes outside of basketball, too.
“Knowing the administration and how much they want to win — they care. It’s figuring out what changes need to be made, what adjustments, what resources they can tap into. I just believe that something special is brewing and the opportunity’s there. They’re headed down the right path to not only compete but win in the Big 12.”
During his time at BYU, Rose was able to attract both top Latter-day Saint players and others from different backgrounds to create a cohesive and successful program.
“For me, I know in my 23 years that I was there, we had great non-LDS kids come in and make our teams a lot better. But our teams were, for the most part, based on the best LDS kids we could find,” he said. “The athletic department continues to try to grow and build and expand. What the core of those teams are going to be in the future in the Big 12, it will be interesting to watch and see what they do.
“I knew how good I felt when I got a guy like Jimmer (Fredette) or Kyle Collinsworth or Tyler Haws — guys that were really, really good production players that were LDS kids that fit really well at BYU. I know how good that felt. Hopefully, we can continue to find those and they’ll come.”
A parade of high-profile teams coming to Provo
One of the challenges for BYU basketball coaches over the years has been attracting prominent programs to the Marriott Center.
The Cougars have been so good at home that few teams have dared venture to Provo for a nonconference game.
Rose tried to schedule big-name teams. “It was hard,” he said.
Pope has tried as well.
During the past 20 years, a few teams, like Wake Forest, North Carolina State and Baylor have visited the Marriott Center. But many programs passed on that opportunity.
Next winter, during the conference season, a parade of high-profile teams, like Kansas, Houston, Texas, Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State, will play in Provo.
Every Big 12 home game will probably feature sellout, raucous crowds like the ones that showed up when Gonzaga came to town during the WCC days.
“The Marriott Center will be rocking,” Haws said.
“To me, that is probably the most exciting thing about going into that league,” Rose said. “The quality of basketball the fans are going to see in the Marriott Center is going to be at a whole different level.”
Rose said that will, of course, affect how Pope schedules in the preseason.
“I hope that he stays with the Utah rivalry. We went through such an interesting time with that while I was there,” Rose said. “I hope we continue to find ways to play Utah State and other Utah schools. It will be interesting to see what that preseason schedule looks like. But with that league schedule, it is going to be really good.”
As happy as Rose is about BYU joining the Big 12, he’s also thrilled that his alma mater, Houston, will also join at the same time.
Rose was part of the famed Phi Slama Jama team that played in the famous 1983 national championship game against North Carolina State.
“For me, it’s exciting to have Houston come into the league. We obviously had a great run at Houston when I was a player,” Rose said. “We had a pretty good run at BYU when I was the coach. It will be fun to watch that series every year. I know (Houston coach) Kelvin (Sampson) has really upgraded his program since he’s come in. It’s really a pleasure to talk to all the former players that I talk to about it.
“The Cougs down there are really good. But now that they’re also coming into the league, I don’t know how good we want them to be. But it will be fun. It will be interesting to have that game twice a year that we’ll look forward to, that’s for sure.”
Patience is a virtue
How much patience will BYU fans need to have as the program joins the nation’s toughest basketball conference?
“Who are the most impatient fans in the entire country? Probably BYU fans. I think that question is difficult for me to answer. You talk about patience, especially for a fanbase that has waited and believed that they belong at this level for a long time,” he said. “Not just 12 years ago, when Utah went to the Pac-12, but this is going back way before that, when BYU football especially believed they should be playing at a much higher level than they were competing at.
“I think there are so many BYU fans that are so excited and so anxious because they’ve waited for this for so long and trying to deal with the first few years of this thing is going to be really interesting because you could jump in that thing and the first year you could catch fire and do something that no one ever thought you could do,” Rose added. “Then again, it was 10 years before the Utes got to the Rose Bowl. Ten years on The Hill is like 50 years where we are. We’ll see what happens.”