BYU seeks to flourish as an underdog in its first Big 12 season

PROVO, Utah — As BYU enters its first season in one of the nation’s premier college basketball conferences, the Cougars are confident that they can defy low expectations and make a run at the NCAA Tournament.

The Cougars were ranked 13th in the Big 12 Conference preseason media poll, placing them just ahead of UCF. After finishing fifth in their final West Coast Conference season, BYU made some key transfers in the offseason to strengthen their chances of making the tournament.

“That’s our goal, to surprise everyone and make it,” said Aly Khalifa, a transfer from Charlotte. “The Big 12 offers more opportunities to make the Dance, so it’s a little easier for us.”

BYU has enhanced its offense with the additions of Khalifa and Dawson Baker. Khalifa, a 6-foot-11 center, had an impressive season with Charlotte, averaging 11.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists. Baker, a 6-4 guard, led UC Irvine in scoring with 15.3 points per game last season. With these additions, BYU now has a stronger team that includes two of its top three scorers from last season.

“We embrace the underdog mentality and plan to surprise a lot of teams,” said guard Trevin Knell.

The Cougars will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves on the court.

UC Irvine guard Dawson Baker (1) is guarded by Oregon guard Will Richardson (0) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Friday, Nov. 11, 2022, in Eugene, Ore. BYU bolstered its offense with the offseason additions of Baker and Aly Khalifa, from Charlotte. Credit: AP/Andy Nelson

“We don’t need to search for top-tier opponents or venues for exposure,” said BYU coach Mark Pope. “Everything we need is right here in our conference. It’s a blessing for every program.”


Under Pope, BYU has established a successful recruiting pipeline to Africa. Three players on the team are originally from Africa — Khalifa (Egypt), Fousseyni Traore (Mali), and Atiki Ally Atiki (Tanzania).

Khalifa finds BYU to be a good cultural fit due to the similarities he sees between Islam and Mormon religious beliefs and practices. Playing in Provo also allows him to focus better on basketball without the distractions he experienced in Charlotte, North Carolina.

BYU head coach Mark Pope directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Gonzaga, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023, in Spokane, Wash. As BYU enters its first season in perhaps the nation’s premier college basketball conference (Big 12), the Cougars say they have the type of team to easily beat low expectations and make a run at the NCAA Tournament. Credit: AP/Young Kwak

“I feel more focused and productive here,” Khalifa said. “I’m excelling academically, performing better in basketball, and even improving my physical fitness.”

Players from Africa have made a significant impact on the BYU team. Traore was the leading scorer and rebounder last season, despite playing limited minutes.


Trevin Knell had to sit out last season due to shoulder surgery, depriving BYU of a key wing shooter. Now, after two years, Knell’s shoulder is fully recovered.

“I feel like I’m shooting better than ever since I’ve been here,” Knell said. “My confidence keeps growing with each practice.”

Knell made 90 three-pointers from 2020-2022, shooting an impressive 40% from long range during that period.


BYU’s deep shooting prowess is expected to continue, as the team retains its top five three-point shooters from last season. Spencer Johnson was the most efficient, making 46.1% of his three-point attempts while averaging 11.1 points per game.


BYU has added Marcus Adams Jr. to their roster, but his eligibility to play is still pending. Adams initially committed to Kansas before transferring to Gonzaga, and he is now waiting for an NCAA waiver to exempt him from sitting out a year as a two-time transfer.

“We’re thrilled to have him,” said Pope. “His eligibility for this season is still uncertain, but we’re hopeful.”


With their entry into the Big 12, BYU has adjusted its nonconference schedule. They will participate in the Vegas Showdown with Arizona State, North Carolina State, and Vanderbilt on Thanksgiving weekend. Additionally, BYU will host San Diego State, last year’s NCAA Tournament runner-up, and face in-state rival Utah on the road.


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