PROVO, Utah (AP) — As BYU enters its first season in one of nation's premier college basketball conferences, the Cougars say they have the type of team that can easily beat low expectations and make a run at the NCAA Tournament.
The Cougars were picked 13th in the Big 12 Conference preseason media poll ahead of only UCF. BYU finished fifth in its final West Coast Conference season, and then added some high-scoring transfers in the offseason to try to make the tournament.
“That’s the goal, obviously, to surprise the world and make it,” Charlotte transfer Aly Khalifa said. “Obviously from the Big 12, I feel like it’s a little easier because there’s more teams that go to the Dance.”
BYU bolstered its offense with the offseason additions of Khalifa and Dawson Baker. Khalifa, a 6-foot-11 center, averaged 11.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists with Charlotte last season. Baker, a 6-4 guard, led UC Irvine with 15.3 points per game last season.
The two transfers add firepower to a team already returning two of its top three scorers.
"We’re going to live in that space of being that underdog with a blue-collar attitude and just go out there and surprise a lot of teams,” guard Trevin Knell said.
The Cougars will not lack for opportunities to prove they belong.
“You don’t have to go hunt for Quad 1 games or great opponents or great venues or exposure,” BYU coach Mark Pope said. “It’s all here, ever-present for you, and you just have to perform. That’s a real blessing for every program in this conference.”
BYU has established a thriving recruiting pipeline to Africa under Pope. Three players are originally from the continent — Khalifa (Egypt), Fousseyni Traore (Mali) and Atiki Ally Atiki (Tanzania).
Khalifa said playing for BYU is a good cultural fit for him because he sees similarities between Islam and Mormon religious beliefs and practices. Focusing on basketball is easier in slower-paced Provo than in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he said he experienced too many distractions off the court.
“I feel like I’m mentally here,” Khalifa said. "I’m doing great at school, way better than the past three years. I’m doing better at basketball. Already lost like 30 pounds. I’m getting stronger and fitter.”
Players from Africa have enjoyed success upon joining the Cougars. Traore led BYU in points (12.9) and rebounds (7.8) a season ago while playing only 24.8 minutes per game.
BACK IN ACTION
Shoulder surgery forced Knell to redshirt last season, depriving BYU of a key shooter on the wing. Now for the first time in two years, his shoulder is 100% healthy.
“I feel like I’m shooting the ball better than I ever have since I’ve been here,” Knell said. “It’s been super fun. I feel like my confidence keeps going up every single practice.”
Knell made 90 3-pointers from 2020-22, shooting 40% from long distance over that two-season stretch.
It won’t be a surprise if BYU lets it rain from the perimeter because the Cougars return their top five 3-point shooters from last season. Spencer Johnson was the most efficient, making 46.1% of his 3s while averaging 11.1 points per game.
One offseason addition for BYU is still waiting for a green light to play. Marcus Adams Jr. joined the Cougars after originally signing with Kansas and then transferring to Gonzaga for a month. Adams is a four-star freshman wing who could contribute right away with his scoring ability and athleticism.
Adams and BYU applied for an NCAA waiver to exempt him from sitting out a year as a two-time transfer.
“We’re really excited to have him,” Pope said. “We won’t know about his eligibility this season for a while. That’s in process, but we’re certainly hopeful.”
Entering the Big 12 prompted BYU to lighten its nonconference schedule. The Cougars leave Utah once before January when they participate in the Vegas Showdown with Arizona State, North Carolina State, and Vanderbilt on Thanksgiving weekend. BYU also hosts NCAA Tournament runner-up San Diego State at home and has a road game against in-state rival Utah.
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