PROVO — BYU basketball coach Mark Pope was incredibly grateful to have played 11 games during the nonconference portion of his team’s schedule, with no outright cancellations or postponements and only one game moved around due to COVID-19.
Playing basketball in the middle of a pandemic — one that canceled last year’s NCAA Tournament and ended early the season of the Cougars’ best squad in nearly a decade — always had its risks. So he made sure to be grateful for each game, and preach that same gratitude to his team as they played every game, whether it was against rival Utah or Utah Valley, San Diego State or Texas Southern.
Playing basketball while COVID-19 claims health, lives and livelihoods was always going to assume risks. BYU was, quite frankly, incredibly lucky for the first 11 games of its season, which it played to a 9-2 record with an 87-79 win over Weber State last week at Vivint Arena. On the same night as the Cougars’ nonconference finale, DePaul was opening the season with a 91-72 win over Western Illinois, its only game of the season before opening Big East play.
Even with the cancellation of last year’s tournament and the heartbreak of that sudden, disappointing decisions, BYU has been — in many ways — lucky.
“We were one of a handful of teams who had a tragic ending in our little tiny slice of the sports world, not getting able to go. That makes us grateful for every single time we step on the court,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “I give a ton of credit to our performance team, our trainers and doctors; they’ve been relentless in helping us take precautions.
“And with all that said and done, we still have to be very fortunate. We’re very blessed, very fortunate, and we’re enjoying every single minute.”
BYU’s luck ran out Wednesday. But the Cougars are still fortunate.
BYU basketball’s conference opener was indefinitely postponed Wednesday after a positive test result for COVID-19 within the Pepperdine basketball program. The two schools will actively work with the West Coast Conference and ESPN, which had committed to broadcast the game Thursday on ESPN2, to reschedule the game.
Until then, the Cougars will look ahead to Saturday’s game at San Diego (6 p.m. MT, Stadium).
BYU tipped off the season Nov. 25 against Westminster, and didn’t face a COVID-related cancellation until Dec. 2, when UConn was forced out of the Roman Legends Classic after going on pause due to COVID-19. But the Cougars, who were already scheduled to play USC at the event held inside “Bubbleville” at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, quickly added St. John’s as a make-up opponent for the event.
Upon returning, BYU resumed its schedule, including moving to 5-0 against in-state opponents, with wins over Utah, Utah State, Utah Valley and Weber State in addition to the victory over the Division II Griffins.
The Cougars even reported to the airport Wednesday afternoon to fly to the Los Angeles area prior to the cancellation. At halftime of the women’s basketball team’s 76-50 home win over Santa Clara, BYU center Kolby Lee led a handful of players from the locker room underneath the Marriott Center with their luggage in tow to the bus, en route to the Provo Airport.
Pepperdine will pause all basketball-related activities in its program, further postponing the Waves’ scheduled game Saturday against Saint Mary’s, as well.
The Cougars, though? They’ll continue with their season, and figure out when to play all of their in-conference games, with hopes of earning another NCAA Tournament bid.
Again, they’re lucky. And they fully realize that, with COVID-19 forcing temporary shutdowns of programs both in Utah and nationally.
“It is the worst thing for an athlete because you have this convenient excuse that’s built in to grab it,” Pope admitted candidly. “The fact that my guys have stayed focused through all the challenges they’ve faced, that’s what I’m really proud of them for.”