With six returning letterwinners from last year's 22-11 team and an influx of talented freshmen and transfers, the BYU basketball team is poised to make a run for its first NCAA tournament berth since 1995.
"Our goal will be the same every year - to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and win a Mountain West Conference championship," said BYU head coach Steve Cleveland, who enters his fourth year in Provo with a 43-48 record. "Those have to be our expectations. We had a good year last year and turned some corners but we still have a ways to go. The Mountain West Conference is going to be very tough this year, but I think we have the potential to be one of the league's top teams. I look forward to coaching these fine young men."
BYU's roster in 2000-2001 includes depth at nearly every position for the first time in coach Cleveland's now four-year tenure. The six key contributors returning include all five starters from last year's NIT quarterfinals team, headlined by seniors Mekeli Wesley and Terrell Lyday.
Lyday and Wesley averaged 17.1 and 16.8 points per game, respectively, last season and should again lead the Cougar effort in 2000-2001. Wesley and Lyday each scored in double figures in all but three games last season while accounting for 48.2 percent of the Cougars' total points and 51.6 percent of their conference points. Lyday had a string of 21 straight games in double digits and Wesley 18 consecutive. Wesley earned second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors and Lyday was named the MWC Newcomer of the Year.
But BYU's talented senior duo shouldn't have to carry the same load as last year. With four other players with starting experience returning as well as a top-20 recruiting class and several key transfers, BYU has the talent and depth to compete with a variety of lineups on the court. Inexperience will be the Cougars biggest concern with many of its talented newcomers playing division I basketball for the first time.
A position-by-position look at this year's team reveals the players and potential combinations to anticipate on the court for BYU this season.
As many as four players on the roster could see action at the point this year, including two experienced returnees, a talented transfer and a highly touted freshman returned missionary.
Michael Vranes, a 6-foot-3 junior, was BYU's starting point as a freshman and played both guard positions last year before taking over the point for the final eight games when the Cougars made their run with several big wins in the MWC and NIT tournaments. Vranes averaged 8.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists last year and was perhaps the Cougars' top perimeter defender. Vranes started all 33 games last year but has not been able to train at full strength during the off-season after a spring foot injury required surgery in September. His injury could keep him from being ready for the start of the season and may even require him to sit out the year (he doesn't have a redshirt year remaining).
Matt Montague has two years of starting experience at BYU. He started all 26 games as a pre-missionary freshman in 1996-97 and returned to start in 19 of 33 games last year at the point. The 6-foot junior from Kentucky led BYU in assists last year with a 3.8 average, second in the MWC, while adding 3.0 points and 2.6 rebounds per game. A hard-nosed competitor and solid floor leader, Montague is fighting an achilles injury that hampered him part of last year.
Trent Whiting played five games at Utah last season before being slowed by an injury. He decided to transfer to BYU to complete his college career. At 6-foot-1, Whiting is an explosive athlete who can finish plays at the basket while also being a real threat from behind the arc. The Kuno, Idaho, native sees the floor well and has the athletic ability to be a solid defender on the perimeter. At Snow College, Whiting was a finalist for NJCAA Player of the Year while averaging 18.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 3.4 steals and shooting 50 percent from three-point range. Whiting could see time at both guard positions after he becomes eligible to compete for the Cougars in mid-December.
Freshman Daniel Bobik will suit up for Steve Cleveland for the first time despite being one of the first recruits to sign with BYU after Cleveland's arrival just over three years ago. Having returned from a mission to the Dominican Republic this summer, Bobik is a highly touted talent who could play both guard positions. At 6-6, Bobik could bring a significant size advantage to the point and has worked hard since his return to condition and prepare for his division I debut. He is an excellent shooter and good passer with good court awareness. As a senior at Newbury Park High School in California, Bobik averaged 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals per game while being named first-team All-CIF and Ventura County MVP.
The 2-guard spot will be one of the Cougars' strengths this year with MWC Player of the Year candidate Terrell Lyday returning for his senior campaign. Other solid players will provide Lyday with time to catch his breath.
Lyday proved he was a division I star-in-the-making last season after transferring from Fresno City College. Whether knifing to the basket or sinking a long-range jumper, the 6-foot-3 guard was an offensive threat any time he touched the ball. He led the Cougars in scoring at 17.1 points per game while adding 4.0 rebounds and setting a BYU record for consecutive games with a made three-pointer. Named the MWC Newcomer of the Year, Lyday is also a strong defender who led the conference in steals. After a strong summer of basketball, Lyday returns in the best condition of his career and should again be an offensive and defensive leader on the court for BYU in 2000-2001.
When Lyday needs a breather, Vranes, Whiting, Bobik and redshirt freshman Jordan Archibald could be called into action. At 6-foot-4, Archibald has good size and is a good shooter.
The 3-position may be one of the most intriguing for the Cougars in 2000-2001. An experienced senior and several newcomers will battle for time on the floor.
Senior Nathan Cooper is one of six letterwinners returning this season. The 6-foot-6 battler played in all 33 games last year and started seven times during BYU's late-season run. The cagey veteran averaged 5.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20 minutes and was the Cougars' top free throw shooter (.778). A team captain, Cooper has been limited by tendonitis in his knee during the summer but provides coach Cleveland with a solid, known commodity who will fight for rebounds and knock down a three-pointer.
After playing his freshman year at Utah Valley State College and returning from an LDS Church mission, sophomore Travis Hansen transferred to BYU after sitting out last season. At 6-foot-6, Hansen is one of the most athletic players on the team and has a solid shooting touch from three-point range. His size and aggressive play have proven an effective combination during the summer leagues this year where he averaged more than 30 points per contest. After not having played for three years, Hansen is anxious to get a chance to take the court and figures to be a key contributor for the Cougars.
Freshman Jesse Pinegar was the first of last year's top-20 recruiting class to commit to BYU and has wowed Cougar faithful with his shooting ability. While standing 6-foot-9-inches tall, the Brighton High School star is also a strong threat from behind the arc and excels facing the basket. He played well during summer leagues this year after sitting out his senior season of high school because of shoulder surgery. He averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds and three blocks as a junior. He is a better fit as a four on the defensive end but could play the three, four or five positions.
Provo High's Jacob Chrisman is a two-sport athlete who signed with BYU to play both basketball and baseball. The 6-foot-8 freshman is a versatile player who may be hard to keep off the court. In the mold of former Cougar and NBA player Fred Roberts, Chrisman is a tough, slasher-type player with a good shooting touch and a nose for the ball. Whether on offense or defense, Chrisman finds a way to be part of nearly every play.
Though more of a four in the post, junior Eric Nielsen could also see time at the three position.
All-MWC forward Mekeli Wesley anchors a much taller and talented front line in 2000-2001. Five different players could see time at the power forward position this year.
BYU's team leader for three years, the 6-foot-9 Wesley returns for his senior season with the deepest supporting cast of his BYU career. A second-team All-MWC selection last year, Wesley will play the four and at times the five position this year. He led BYU with 5.8 rebounds last year and was the Cougars top scorer for most of the year. He finished with a 16.8 average and just nine total points less than team-leader Lyday. He has worked hard in the off-season and returns with a bulked up frame. Wesley is an excellent scorer with many post moves and a soft jumper that extends to three-point range. He shot 48 percent from the floor, 37 percent on threes and 74 percent from the line last year.
Eric Nielsen proved his potential when he came on strong at the end of last season to lead BYU to several upset wins. He started 28 of 33 games for BYU last year after returning from an LDS Church mission, averaging 5.8 points and 4.1 rebounds. Nielsen returns for his junior season having built upon the success of late last season. Physically much stronger, the 6-foot-9 forward has recovered from his missionary layoff and worked hard on his shooting. He should be a key contributor inside for BYU. An intelligent player with a good mid-range jumper, Nielsen can also cause trouble for bigger frontline opponents with his quickness.
Freshman Garner Meads brings McDonald's All-America credentials to BYU's frontline this season. A tough-minded 6-foot-8 banger, Meads also has a good mid-range game. He is a hard-working player who wasn't able to play this summer until late because of off-season knee surgery. He averaged 21 points, 8.5 rebounds and six assists at Brighton High School and became one of only four Utah high school players to ever be invited to play in the McDonald's All-America game. He should be a contributor on the front line for the Cougars this year.
Nate Knight is a 6-foot-10 transfer from Kentucky who will play his senior year at BYU. The brother of the NBA's Travis Knight and former Cougar Shane Knight, Nate played at Utah Valley State College before signing with Kentucky. He will give BYU an experienced and active post player with good size once he becomes eligible in mid-December.
In addition to playing on the perimeter, Pinegar could also see time in the post at the four position.
Inexperience but size fill the roster at the center position for BYU in 2000-2001. In addition to the Cougars two true centers, Wesley and several other frontline players could see some action at the five spot.
Freshman Derek Dawes comes to BYU from Salt Lake's Cottonwood High School. The 6-foot-11 center is an active player who runs the floor well and is a good free throw shooter. Possessing great timing for blocking shots, Dawes should be a strong defensive presence with good potential on offense. He averaged 19 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks last year as a high school senior.
Dan Howard was forced to redshirt last year because of medical hardship. Knee surgery kept him from playing after getting into only four games and a total of 19 minutes last year. He average 1.5 points and 2.0 rebounds while making all three of his shots in 4.8 minutes per game. Standing 7-foot tall, Howard has a knack for the ball and could be a significant factor for the Cougars with his size inside. He worked hard during the summer on his strength and conditioning.