PROVO -- BYU's recent basketball tour to Europe was a success on and off the court, according to BYU Head Basketball Coach Steve Cleveland.
"The trip was a great experience for everybody," Cleveland said. "It was a great basketball trip but more importantly, it was a very positive trip for our players off the court. They were able to meet and interact with many people from other backgrounds and gain respect for their cultures. The experience also heightened everyone's appreciation for our own culture."
On the court, the Cougars were matched up with professional teams from Europe who are currently playing preseason games for the upcoming season. The five-game tour through England, Croatia and Italy was scheduled for the Cougars after a previously arranged trip to England and Spain in early July was cancelled because organizers required BYU to play Sunday games. The England-Spain trip would have pitted BYU against college age 22-year-old and under teams.
"The teams we played were all very good with experienced professional athletes," said Cleveland, whose team finished with a 1-4 record on the trip. "It was a very challenging environment with a lot of tiring travel before games and playing professional teams. I was very encouraged about how we performed on the trip. I feel the trip provided us with great opportunities to be a better basketball team this fall."
Among the experiences Cleveland feels will benefit his team was the opportunity to develop team chemistry. Returned missionaries Eric Nielsen and Matt Montague joined seven returners from last year's team - Mekeli Wesley, Michael Vranes, Todd Christensen, Nathan Cooper, Silester Rivers, Bret Jepsen and Mark Michaelis - on the trip and according to Cleveland enjoyed an outstanding camaraderie both as individuals and as a team unit.
The tour also gave Cleveland and his coaching staff valuable practice and game opportunities during a time in which they normally aren't able to work with the team. "This tour gave us the chance to put in a new offensive system during the two weeks of practice and then run it during the games," Cleveland said. "Our offensive development was good and this will certainly allow us to spend more time in the fall emphasizing defense and rebounding, which is the No. 1 need of our team."
The non-basketball part of the trip was equally successful according to Cleveland, who preceded the team by several days on the trip to speak at a youth conference in the London area. "Our players were great ambassadors and began to realize the influence they can have for good," revealed Cleveland, who returned to England for the first time since serving an LDS Church mission there from 1971-73. "The players went into the stands after games and gave people candy and t-shirts and spent time getting to know them. Members of the church in these countries came out to our games to support us and we were able to spend time with them attending church and through other activities. It was a great experience."
On the court, the Cougars finished the trip on a winning note, leading most the game and earning a 69-68 win over the Italian professional team from Gorizia. Mekeli Wesley and Michael Vranes led the way with 20 points apiece. Vranes was a key defensive force, coming up with five steals and Eric Nielsen made a key three-point play late in the contest. BYU opened the trip in England with a six quarter controlled scrimmage against London professionals before suffering an 80-72 loss to the London Towers, the 1998-99 United Kingdom champions. Former Weber State coach Ron Abegglen is the new coach of the Towers for the upcoming season.
From England, BYU took a gruelling 24-hour trip to Zadar, Croatia, to play in the second annual Kresimir Cosic Classic. Despite the travel that included two flights and an eight-hour bus ride, BYU played perhaps its best half of the trip in the first stanza against Split Croatia, the No. 1 pro team in Croatia and former team of NBA players Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and the late Drazen Petrovic. Led by Wesley, Todd Christensen and Nathan Cooper, BYU led most of the first half before going to the break trailing 44-40. Split Croatia came back in the second half to claim a 98-79 victory. Wesley finished with 26 points, Christensen 18 and Cooper 14. Rivers played for the first time during the trip but was limited to 10 minutes because of an ankle sprain. BYU lost its second game in Zadar, 80-60, to a Division I professional team from Turkey. Wesley again led the way with 22 points as the Cougars played without Silester Rivers and Eric Nielsen (thigh bruise).
The Cougars played their final two games in Italy without Rivers and using Nielsen in only limited minutes. Prior to the win over Gorizia, BYU lost 80-74 to Udine, Italy, with Wesley tossing in 26 points, Christensen 16 and Cooper 12.
"Kresimir Cosic is a national hero in Croatia," said Cleveland, who conducted a one-hour clinic for national and professional coaches while in Zadar. "In Italy we were able to get a little rest before our games. We played well in our two games in Italy."
Individually, Wesley averaged 22 points, Christensen 15, and Cooper and Vranes 10 while newcomers Montague and Nielsen each contributed seven points per contest. Wesley and Christensen showed vast improvement over last year. "The offense goes through the post and Mekeli has worked very hard all summer., "Cleveland said. "I'm really pleased with his progress and leadership. Todd shot well but I really liked Todd's attitude. He is bigger, stronger and got after things competitively."
According to Cleveland, Nielsen showed that he will be a valuable contributor this season despite being limited during part of the trip by a thigh bruise. "Eric was very active around the glass, ran the floor well and really got after it on defense. He and Matt both played well. Matt made some great passes running the team, particularly on our secondary break. "