Cougars continue steady improvement in Cleveland's second year.
Highlighted by a 90-74 WAC Tournament upset over heavily favored TCU, BYU's men's basketball team continued its steady improvement under second-year coach Steve Cleveland in 1998-99.
Cleveland's Cougars improved to 12-16 and became the first BYU squad to win a WAC Tournament contest since 1994 despite playing a schedule -- the toughest in the conference -- that featured four Pac-10 teams and 13 games against schools that earned post-season tournament berths. The Cougars non-conference opponents included NCAA No. 1 seed Auburn, No. 10-ranked Arizona, NIT champion California, and NIT semifinalist Oregon.
For the second time in as many years, Cleveland began the season without a core group of returning players on which to build. New recruits Mark Bigelow, a 6-foot-6 freshman guard from Olympia, Wash., and Silester Rivers, a 6-foot-7 junior forward who transferred from Utah Valley State College, joined returned missionaries Michael Vranes, Nathan Cooper and Todd Christensen as key players in Cleveland's rotation. Returning guards Brian Dignan and Danny Bower and center Bret Jepsen added depth while the team's top returner, sophomore forward Mekeli Wesley, returned to the team in mid-December after spending a semester at Salt Lake Community College.
Despite the tough schedule and numerous injuries requiring Cleveland to juggle his lineup, the Cougars were rarely out of any contests, with six losses being decided by four points or less. Four particularly heart-breaking defeats were one-point losses to California and Washington State and overtime losses to Arizona and San Jose State.
After qualifying for the WAC Tournament in their final regular season game the previous season, the Cougars earned a tournament berth with several weeks remaining in 1999 and improved to the fifth seed in the powerful WAC Pacific Division. BYU also improved its home record from 4-10 to 9-5 and won its second straight Cougar Classic title with wins over Louisiana Tech and Cal State Northridge. Cougar Classic MVP Nathan Cooper earned WAC Player of the Week honors while averaging 18.5 points and seven rebounds during the Classic.
BYU won three straight games in January to jump out to a 3-1 conference record. The wins included road victories over San Diego State and Hawai'i and a 75-44 drubbing of San Jose State in the Marriott Center. Mekeli Wesley's game winning three-point shot in Hawaii capped a double-digit Cougar comeback and was recognized nationally as one of the Compaq College Basketball Shots of the Week.
The Cougars suffered their longest losing skid in the heart of the conference schedule, dropping games to Fresno State, UTEP, New Mexico and Utah. The Cougars nearly pulled out a win over Fresno in front of 21,645 cheering fans in the Marriott Center before falling by four, 79-75, and attracted the largest crowd of the season, 22,502, in the home loss to Utah. BYU's swing through New Mexico included Bret Jepsen's backboard-shattering dunk.
Like Cleveland's first season, BYU finished strong to end the year, defeating UTEP in its final regular season game, 85-64, led by Silester Rivers' 22 points and 10 rebounds. The Cougars then hit a season-high 13 three pointers and dished out a season-best 21 assists in its WAC Tournament win over TCU. Freshman Michael Vranes made 5-7 treys and dished out eight assists to complement Cooper's 24 points and Rivers' 10 rebounds. Rivers continued to show signs of what people will see during his senior season, scoring 23 points in one of his best performances of the year in the final game against Utah.
On the year, Bigelow was BYU's top scorer, averaging 15 points per game. Against Washington State, he wowed his home-state fans scoring 33 points, the second most points ever scored by a freshman at BYU (Danny Ainge scored 36 and 33). The freshman sensation, who earned WAC Freshman of the Year, WAC Newcomer Team and All-WAC Second Team honors, also led the Cougars in rebounding (6.7 rpg) and steals (1.4). Vranes led the team in assists with a 2.9 average.
As a team, the Cougars shot 45 percent from the floor, 37 percent from three-point range and nearly 73 percent from the free throw line. BYU averaged 71.8 points per game with a much improved offensive attack and out rebounded their opponents on the year, averaging 36.2 to the opposition's 34.7.