With the loss of four starters from last year's 24-9 Mountain West Conference championship team, BYU head coach Steve Cleveland will have some significant holes to fill in 2001-02. Several talented newcomers and seven returning lettermen, including 1999 WAC Freshman of the Year Mark Bigelow, will be among those vying to fill those roles.
"We lost some significant contributors from last year's team but I look forward to this season," Cleveland said. "We have talented players but for the most part they lack game experience. These players have great chemistry. If we can avoid major injuries, I believe we will be a pretty good basketball team."
The Cougars are without their top three scorers from last year in MWC Player of the Year Mekeli Wesley and all-conference guards Terrell Lyday and Trent Whiting. Also missing is starting forward Nathan Cooper and top reserve forward/center Nate Knight. In addition, Cleveland learned in September that senior combo guard Michael Vranes, who missed last season due to a foot injury, will also be unable to play this year since his foot has not responded to the surgeries and treatments. Vranes, a starter as a freshman and sophomore, will be missed. A 6-foot-3 combo guard with good size and strength, Vranes would have played significant minutes, especially at the point. He was a defensive stopper on the perimeter who averaged 9.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists during his abbreviated two-year career.
Senior forward Eric Nielsen is the lone starter returning from last year but Mark Bigelow, the 1999 WAC Freshman of the Year, returns after serving a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Three others - senior guard Matt Montague, junior forward Travis Hansen and sophomore forward Bart Jepsen - have starting experience.
Bigelow, who returned from an LDS Church mission in June, was BYU's top scorer (15.0) and rebounder (6.3) as a swingman before departing on a mission to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He has grown an inch to 6-foot-7 and has been working on getting back into basketball condition since his return.
The 6-foot-9 Nielsen provides senior leadership as a three-year starter. He averaged 6.2 points and 3.8 rebounds last season and will take on a larger role in 2001-02. Senior point guard Matt Montague adds valuable leadership on the court having led the team in assists during each of his three previous seasons. Travis Hansen should play a significant role in 2001-02 as a scorer, rebounder and defender. The 6-foot-6 athletic forward earned a starting assignment last year before being injured. Bart Jepsen, who stands 6-foot-9, started nine times as a freshman in 1998. He redshirted last year to recover from a broken leg sustained during his two-year mission.
Nine newcomers join the Cougars but four will redshirt, including junior transfers Ricky Bower (University of Wisconsin) and Jake Shoff (Weber State University), who must sit out due to transfer rules. Also redshirting will be freshman guards Dane Runia and Gifford Nielsen.
Two recruits - forward/center Jared Jensen and point guard Shawn Opunui - will likely get the opportunity to play significant roles in their freshman campaigns. Jensen, a 6-foot-9 physical player, earned the 2001 Deseret News Mr. Basketball Award after scoring 25.8 points and pulling down 13 rebounds per game last season at Fremont High School (Utah). The 5-foot-11 Opunui averaged 21.7 points and 6.1 assists as an all-state point guard at Orem High School (Utah) in 1999 before leaving for an LDS Church mission.
The Cougars should be strong on the perimeter. Hansen, Bigelow and Daniel Bobik will likely split up most of the minutes on the wings. Bigelow is a proven player and Hansen has the ability to be a top scorer. Bobik, a 6-foot-6 sophomore, showed signs of his potential with season highs of 16 points, six rebounds and three assists last year in a reserve role behind Lyday and Cooper. He has good size at the two-guard spot and could play some small forward. Bobik, Hansen and Bigelow have the talent to replace the point production and rebounding lost in Lyday and Cooper. Freshmen Jimmy Balderson, a 6-foot-6 combo guard from Alberta, Canada, could also contribute. He has size and range from beyond the three-point arc. He averaged 34 points, 9.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists in high school last year.
At the point, Montague and Opunui will see the majority of the minutes. Montague, the likely starter, is an experience leader with 57 starts while averaging 25.8 minutes in 92 career games. The 6-foot senior has led the Cougars in assists during each of his three seasons. Opunui is an explosive athlete who has the potential to earn the starting job. A penetrator who can create scoring opportunities for his teammates, he is also a solid scoring threat from outside and can get above the rim to finish. Balderson and Terry Nashif, an all-state point in 1999 from Vancouver, Wash., could factor in at the point. Nashif, who enrolled at BYU this fall after serving two-year mission, lacks size at 5-foot-10 but is a good shooter and a heady player who knows how to distribute the ball.
Cleveland's biggest uncertainties are in the post. Gone is Wesley, the team's leading scorer and rebounder. In addition, three other players who would have played a strong role inside this season will be gone for all or part of the year. Reserve center Derek Dawes (6-foot-11 sophomore) decided this summer he will leave on an LDS Church mission, two-sport athlete Jacob Chrisman (6-foot-8 sophomore) has announced he will redshirt to test his professional prospects while playing a full baseball season, and forward Jesse Pinegar (6-foot-9 redshirt freshman) injured his shoulder in June and will be out until at least December to recover from surgery.
Nielsen will play the four-position. A good shooter, he shot 61 percent from the floor on mostly mid-range jumpers last year. He will be asked to play a bigger role as a scorer this year. Pinegar, a versatile and talented offensive scorer with three-point range, and Jepsen, a strong rebounder and defender, will likely see most of the minutes while Nielsen is not on the court. Pinegar adds a strong offensive threat with the ability to play out on the floor as well as inside. A physical player at 6-foot-9, Jepsen runs the floor well and will likely be a major contributor in the post for the Cougars.
Jensen, transfer Jon Carlisle (6-10 junior), and Dan Howard (7-0 sophomore) should get a chance to prove themselves at the center position. Jensen is an effective scorer with his back to the basket and could get time on the court at both post positions. Howard has good size and has worked hard to prepare himself for more playing time in the middle. Carlisle, who last played on Utah's Final Four team in 1998 as the primary backup to current Cleveland Cavaliers center Michael Doleac, has the talent to be a strong contributor if he can get back into playing shape. Coming back more than 40 pounds over his freshman playing weight, he has made some good strides during summer before being slowed by a fractured foot. Jepsen could also prove a factor at center.
The conference media predicted a sixth-place finish for the Cougars in its preseason poll, with Wyoming and Utah, who both return all five starters, being picked to finish first and second, respectively. New Mexico came in third in the voting, followed by San Diego State, UNLV, BYU, Colorado State and Air Force.
The MWC, whose teams play 22 non-conference games against teams that qualified for last year's NCAA tournament, is expected to be a strong basketball league from top to bottom in 2001-02. MWC teams will appear in 32 games on ABC or the ESPN networks. BYU will play in seven of those games, second most to Utah's 10. The Cougars, who play two 10 p.m. ESPN games this year against Stanford and Utah, will also appear in 12 games broadcast by SportsWest Productions.