Returning a core nucleus of players for the first time in three years, BYU has its sights set on a post-season tournament berth as it continues its steady improvement under the third-year coach Steve Cleveland.
"This is the first year since I've been here that we have a core nucleus of players returning," explained BYU Head Coach Steve Cleveland,who returns eight letterman for the 1999-2000 season. "From this point forward, our goal will always be to qualify for post-season play."
Four starters return from last year's 12-16 team that finished strong with a 90-74 upset over heavily favored TCU at the 1999 WAC Tournament - the Cougars first conference tournament victory since 1994. Post players Mekeli Wesley, a 6-9 junior center/forward, and Silester Rivers, a 6-7 senior forward, return along with 6-5 junior guard/forward Nathan Cooper and sophomore guard Michael Vranes.
Wesley, who averaged 11 points and 4.9 rebounds last season despite struggling to find his game after joining the team mid-year, scored 22 points per game during BYU's summer tour against European professional teams in England, Croatia and Italy. He looks to be a major force for the Cougars in 1999-2000 as he returns to the form that earned him freshman of the year honors two years ago. Wesley poses a threat to opponents as he has the ability to score in the post or from the perimeter.
Rivers showed signs of what the Cougars hope will come this season when he finished 1999 with a flurry, including a 23-point effort against Utah in the Cougars final game. A talented post scorer, Rivers is also a strong rebounder and will be depended upon heavily for both during the upcoming season. Rivers didn't see much action in Europe because of an ankle sprain but finished last year strong leading the team in rebounding in each of the final three games and twice being the top scorer with 22 points against UTEP and 23 against Utah. Rivers continued to perform well during workouts prior to the teams trip to Europe.
Vranes had an impressive freshman campaign a year ago, averaging 10.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists while primarily handling the Cougars' point guard duties. He led the team in assists and will continue to see time at the point this season but could also play more shooting guard, his more natural position. The 6-4 guard is a strong player who possesses great athleticism and was BYU's top three point shooter, hitting 42 percent of his attempts from behind the arc.
Cooper and fellow junior Todd Christensen will be key cogs in the Cougar attack in 1999-2000, returning in the better physical condition than they were in all of last year while trying to adjust from a two-year LDS Church mission induced layoff. Cooper has improved his shooting touch and looks to improve upon his 10 point, 4.5 rebound contributions of last year while swinging as a small forward and shooting guard. Christensen, considered the best pure shooter on the team, has added 20 pounds to his frame and a more aggressive approach to his game. The 6-1 guard proved he will be a big contributor, scoring 15 points per game in Europe and playing solid defense.
The Cougars will receive help on the perimeter from junior college transfer Terrell Lyday, who made more than 100 treys while leading his Fresno City team with 17. 5 points last season. The 6-3 talent will add athleticism and versatility to the Cougar perimeter with the ability to play shooting guard, small forward or point guard positions.
"Terrell played all three perimeter positions during his two years at Fresno City College," said Cleveland. "It is a real benefit to our program to have players with that kind of versatility. He is an outstanding shooter, can take it to the basket and is a strong finisher and was Fresno's top defender. Terrell is an outstanding young man who will be a real asset to our program on and off the court."
Returned missionaries Eric Nielsen and Matt Montague add experience and depth to the Cougar lineup. Nielsen, a 6-8 forward, should see significant time in the post along with Rivers, Wesley and 6-11 center Bret Jepsen, who returns for his senior season. Nielsen and Montague averaged seven points in Europe and had the opportunity to become acquainted with their new teammates. Montague, a true point guard, adds ball handling and passing skills to a team that struggled through most of last year with excessive and untimely turnovers.
"Eric is very active around the glass, runs the floor well and really got after it on defense on our Europe trip," Cleveland said. "He and Matt both played well. Matt made some great passes running the team, particularly on our secondary break. "
Other players who will could play a role this year include 6-4 redshirt freshman guard David Nielsen; 6-2 Utah 4A Player of the Year Marc Roberts; 6-4 freshman Jordan Archibald; 6-6 freshman forward Morgan Smith, 6-8 sophomore forward Nick Taggart, 6-11 junior center Joe Ellsworth and 7-foot freshman center Dan Howard. Archibald, Smith, Taggart and Howard are all recently returned missionaries.
"Our top priorities are defense and rebounding," said Cleveland, who lost his top scorer and rebounder in WAC Freshman of the Year Mark Bigelow to a two-year LDS Church mission. "We have added a new offensive system that worked well on our Eurpean Tour."