Two years ago, BYU was scheduled to play in a tournament in the Bahamas — the Junkanoo Jam — but it was canceled due to COVID-19.
Now the Cougars have traveled to Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament.
“These tournaments are always great. Everyone right now is trying to get mileage under their belts and trying to learn their team and figure out how guys function together in different situations.” — BYU coach Mark Pope
BYU (3-1) takes on USC (3-1) Wednesday (3 pm MST, ESPN2) at Imperial Arena.
For a young team like the Cougars, this is a chance to get experience on a big stage against prominent opponents in a prestigious multi-team event in an exotic location.
The other programs in the eight-team field are No. 3 Kansas (the defending national champions), North Carolina State, Dayton, Wisconsin, No. 22 Tennessee and Butler.
The winner of BYU-USC takes on the winner of Tennessee-Butler on Thanksgiving Day. The loser of the first game also squares off Thursday.
All these teams are set to play three games over three consecutive days. The Battle 4 Atlantis concludes Friday.
“These tournaments are always great. Everyone right now is trying to get mileage under their belts and trying to learn their team and figure out how guys function together in different situations and get different looks,” said coach Mark Pope. “The fact that we can squeeze all of this data and all of this game film into three days is great. It’s one of the best things about MTEs. This is the best event there is.”
Participating teams receive $2 million to play in this tournament.
For guard Rudi Williams, playing in a tournament like this is one reason why he transferred to BYU.
“It kind of gives you an opportunity to uplift yourself and get seen by the right people,” he said. “So when they were recruiting me, I knew what I was getting myself into coming here. I knew the schedule. That also intrigued me because I want to play against the best guys and be in the right place where all the better players are.”
How will Pope measure success for his team this week?
“The politically correct way, and true way, to answer that question is, we’re so excited to be here to learn more about who we are,” he said. “We’re going to get an unbelievable opportunity to play some of the most elite programs in all of college basketball right now and give ourselves a gauge of where we are and how we need to get better.
“The answer from our heart is, we’d like to come and win all the games. That’s why we’re here. We’d like to win these games. We’re going to have to play really, really, really well to do it. The only game that matters, of course, is the game tomorrow against USC. That’s our hope and ambition — try to win that game tomorrow.”
Coincidentally, because BYU wasn’t able to play in the Bahamas two years ago, it ended up playing in the Romans Legends Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
In their first game, the Cougars lost to USC 79-53.
The Trojans’ length proved too much for BYU as brothers Evan and Isaiah Mobley dominated. Evan, a 7-footer now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, had 17 points and 11 rebounds while Isaiah, a 6-11 forward, finished with 11 points and 11 boards.
Guard Drew Peterson scored a game-high 19 points. Peterson is still on the Trojans’ roster — he’s averaging 15.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8 assists per game.
“We faced them a couple of years ago and got drilled. It was really challenging for us. At the time, they were so long. But they were so ridiculously long,” Pope recalled. “They were also new. They had youth on their team, young stars, just like they do now.
“This team isn’t quite as long and it may have more of a veteran presence in Drew Peterson in terms of having been through the program for quite a while and having a ton of success. But they’re good. They have some young talent that hasn’t had a chance to burst onto the national scene yet. They’re going to be a really good team. They’re super talented and they’re going to be a handful.”
USC ranks No. 4 nationally in blocked shots, with 7.3 per game.
Certainly, Imperial Arena is a unique venue. It’s located in a ballroom between the Beach and Coral Towers at the Atlantis resort. While the court is bathed in light, the stands are kept dark during play. But some blue lighting creates a bluish hue around the playing surface. The lighting setup could cause depth perception challenges for shooters.
“I like the gym. It’s got the (Madison Square Garden) lighting,” Pope said. “I like it a lot where there’s light really focused on the court and you lose everything else in the backdrop because it’s a dark setting behind the hoop. It’s a little bit of a new feeling for our guys and I’m sure it is for a lot of the guys coming into this gym. It’s a really good venue.”
Williams said he is “super excited” to be in The Bahamas and that his team is ready for this three-games-in-three-days challenge.
“We feel like we’ve grown in four short games. Each game, coach always mentions that he sees us growing in certain departments,” he said. “It makes me super excited as a player knowing that everyone thinks that we’re a young team but we’re growing up on the fly. That’s big-time for us.”
On Thanksgiving week, Pope is thankful for this challenge for his team.
“It’s going to be a fun, hoops-filled Thanksgiving,” he said. “We’re super grateful for that opportunity.”
Battle 4 Atlantis on the air
vs. USC (3-1)
Wednesday, 3 pm MST
Imperial Arena in Paradise Island, Bahamas
Radio: BYU Radio/1160 AM