While BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope hasn’t connected on every transfer he’s recruited, he’s doing it enough to show his methods and message can work at the private, religious school.
That wonder was key upon Pope’s hire: after drawing Division I transfers like Jake Toolson and Akolda Manyang to Utah Valley, could the passionate, energetic coach still attract those transfers to Provo, given BYU’s religious affiliation and the school’s requisite honor code?
In his first season back on BYU’s bench — this time as head coach — Pope secured the services of Arizona transfer and guard Alex Barcello.
He also welcomed Toolson back to BYU as a graduate transfer, bringing the sharpshooter full circle in his career. Despite interest from the likes of Duke and Virginia, the reigning WAC player of the year chose Pope and BYU. But Toolson began his college experience at BYU, is a member of the church that runs the institution, and had already played for Pope at UVU.
Could Pope roll that success into a second recruiting offseason?
After being a finalist for but losing out on San Francisco playmaker Charles Minlend Jr. (who chose Louisville) and Quinnipiac sharpshooter Rich Kelly (who chose Boston College), BYU again found itself as a finalist this week.
It was for 7-foot-3 Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms, who placed BYU on his final list with Kentucky, one of the sport’s blue bloods, and Texas Tech, which has a recent national championship game appearance.
Surely BYU’s 2019-20 success — the Cougars finished the season ranked No. 18 — played a role. Haarms told ESPN as much. Perhaps Pope, a big man himself, and assistant coach Chris Burgess, a former Duke and Utah center, being on BYU’s bench helps with Haarms, specifically.
But the decision still speaks volumes about Pope’s focus on nabbing a few key transfers each year, and his ability to do so at BYU.
There aren’t many bigger head-to-head recruiting opponents than Kentucky (which happens to be Pope’s alma mater). But the Cougars’ advances in player development with Pope’s staff were noticeable this season, and probably noticeable to Haarms. TJ Haws finally unlocked all his potential into a stellar senior season, Yoeli Childs sured up his bonafides as an NBA prospect and Toolson helped lead a gang of shooters that became the best 3-point shooting team in the country.
Haarms told national basketball writer Jeff Goodman that he “trusted Coach Pope ... I think he had the best plan in place for me to succeed.”
With sights on the NBA, general consensus is Haarms chose BYU at least in part to improve and showcase his ability to shoot the 3-pointer. Averaging 8.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game as a junior, Haarms also upped his 3-point shooting to 31.3%. It’s a serviceable mark for a player standing 7-foot-3, but he only took one attempt per game. He’s now expected to shoot more in his final college season.
Transfers are part of how Gonzaga’s Mark Few has built his monster that played for the national title in 2017 and has advanced to the Sweet 16 for five straight seasons. He’s scored big on the European recruiting scene as well, but pulling in key transfers from power schools like Nigel Williams-Goss or Admon Gilder — or, though it was from San Jose State, signing a sure-fire pro like Brandon Clarke as a graduate transfer — has been important to Gonzaga’s dominance in the West.
That’s the new normal. With a large signing class to secure, Weber State is now head-first into the transfer market and has, to this point, signed four Division I transfers (three graduates) to play in Ogden. It may secure one more before it’s done recruiting.
If Pope can sell transfers on BYU — despite perceived hurdles and even in battles against Duke and Kentucky — and be in the mix for the top-ranked transfers each offseason, the Cougars have a shot to challenge Gonzaga as the unquestioned power of the West Coast Conference and join the Zags in being perpetually ranked and nationally relevant.