PROVO, Utah (Dec. 2, 1999) -- After playing No. 4 Arizona tough for 30 minutes before eventually falling 86-62 Wednesday, the Cougars will travel to Denver to play the University of Denver Pioneers Saturday afternoon. The game tips off at 1 p.m. in the new Magness Arena. This will be Denver's third game in its new facility, after splitting its first two games at home. KSL Newsradio 1160 will broadcast the game with the pre-game show beginning at 12:30 p.m.
BYU Head Coach: Steve Cleveland
Record at BYU: 22-38 (3rd year)
Overall Div. I record: Same
Denver Head Coach: Marty Fletcher
Record at Denver: 18-38 (3rd year)
Overall record: 231-259 (15th year)
Series Record: BYU leads 51-16
Game Time: 1 p.m. Mountain
Network: KSL Newsradio 1160 AM
Air Time: 8:30 p.m. Mountain
Play-by-play: Greg Wrubell
Commentary: Mark Durrant
A Quick Look at the Cougars
BYU is 2-1 after two homes wins and a loss at No. 4 Arizona Wednesday. BYU has opened each of its three seasons under coach Steve Cleveland with a win and this year is 2-1 for the first time in five years. The Cougars are shooting .517 from the floor after three games and .800 from the free throw line. They are also making 39.5 percent of their three pointers thus far in the season. Junior Mekeli Wesley leads the team with a 20.7 scoring average, followed by junior college transfer Terrell Lyday (15.7) and senior Silester Rivers (11.0). Rivers has been nursing an ankle injury and suffered a sprain again Wednesday against Arizona. The Cougars have a core nucleus of players returning for the first time in the Cleveland era, with five key contributors (Silester Rivers, Nathan Cooper, Michael Vranes, Mekeli Wesley and Todd Christensen) from last year's team giving Cleveland more continuity.
The University of Denver is 1-1 this year. The Pioneers opened last Friday with a 72-69 win over Yale at home before losing its first-ever Sun Belt Conference game 81-68 Tuesday to Louisiana-Lafayette's Ragin' Cajuns before 1,019 fans at Magness Arena. Sophomore forward Wahhab Carter hit a 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left on the clock to
lead Denver to its thrilling 72-69 win over Yale before 1,868 fans in the new Magness Arena. Tom Starkey, one of five newcomers on this year's team, led the Pioneers with 18 points, hitting 4-of-8 from the 3-point line. Junior guard Arthur Ireland and Carter finished with 15 points each and freshman guard B.J. Pratt added 13 points. Tuesday, Denver trailed Lafayette by five (27-32) at the half but tied the score at 34-34 just 53 seconds into the second half. The score remained close during the next five minutes until the Ragin' Cajuns went on a 17-6 run midway through the second half to pull away for good. The Pioneers led in rebounds (45 to 43), but made 10 less field goals while shooting just 37 percent. The Pioneers also committed 20 turnovers. Sophomore forward Wahhab Carter led the Pioneers with his first double-double of the season as he tallied 17 points and had 10 rebounds. Point guard Ty Church of Salt Lake City who played at Ricks College also had his first double-double of the season scoring 11 points to go with 11 assists. Center Steve Simmons finished with 11 points and eight rebounds. Denver's leading scorers after two games are sophomore forwards Wahhab Carter, 6-6, (16 ppg), and Tom Starkey, 6-5, (13.5 ppg). Junior guard Arthur Ireland, 6-3, adds 11 points per game. Carter and Ireland are pulling down a team-leading 7.5 rebounds per contest. Carter, Church and Ireland are three returning starters from last year's 10-17 team. This year the Pioneers are shooting .355 from the floor, including .300 on treys, and .692 from the line.
This will be the 68th meeting between the two schools dating back to 1933. BYU leads the series 51-16. Last year BYU won in Provo, 89-71. Silester Rivers led BYU with 26 points while Arthur Ireland had a game-high 27. The previous meeting was in 1979 when Danny Ainge, Alan Taylor, Devin Durrant and Fred Roberts all scored in double figures to lead BYU to a 92-53 home win. The last meeting in Denver was a 97-87 BYU win during the 1973-74 season. Denver's last win in the series came in the 1969-70 season, a 73-56 victory in Denver.
BYU's Silester Rivers scored a career-high 26 points while Todd Christensen and Mark Bigelow added 15 points apiece to lead Cougar to a 89-71 win at the Marriott Center last year. The Cougars pulled away late after leading by only three at the break, 37-34. Freshman Mark Bigelow had a career-best 14 rebounds in the outing and Rivers added nine boards. As a team, BYU shot 50 percent from the floor (28-56) and 33 percent from three-point range (5-15). Christensen made all but one of the Cougar threes, knocking in four of his nine attempts from behind the arc. BYU shot 70 percent from the free throw line (28-40). The Cougars pulled away in the second half, thanks to 60 percent shooting. After going 2-12 in the first half on three-point attempts, the Cougars got the ball inside in the second half while making good on all three treys in the second 20 minutes. Rivers and Bigelow scored 12 points each in the second half and Christensen added 11 of his 15, going 3-3 on three-pointers. Arthur Ireland made 8-12 shots and 9-11 free throws to score a game-high 27 for Denver. Eric Dow added 14 and Wahhab Carter 13.
Guard Michael Vranes has made 7-10 three pointers this year. He was a perfect 5-5 in the first two gams and hit 2-5 treys against Arizona for his six points. He scored his season-high 13 points against Southern Utah while making all three of his three-point attempts.
Wesley Finding Form
Junior Mekeli Wesley is showing the form that was missing most of last year, scoring 20.7 points per game after three games. Wesley did not play in last year's BYU vs. Denver contest because he was attending Salt Lake Community College. After returning he never consistently played to the level he achieved as a freshman. This year, Wesley has already matched his season high from last year, 24 points, on two occasions. He had 24 in the opener against UC Riverside and Wednesday against Arizona. He scored 14 points against Southern Utah University.
BYU has not opened a season with a 2-1 record since the 1994-95 season. The Cougars 2-0 start was also a first since 1994-95. With a win Saturday against Denver, the Cougars could start the year 3-1 for the first time since the 1992-93 year when BYU got off to a 7-1 mark.
Offense in Gear
BYU scored more than 90 points in its first two games this year after only having scored more than 90 points one time in coach Steve Cleveland's first two seasons. The Cougars scored 92 points against Southern Utah, one more than the 91 they tallied against UC Riverside in their opener.
The Cougars scorched the nets, making 61 percent of their shots against UC Riverside and 58 percent against Southern Utah. After shooting only 36.5 percent against No. 4 Arizona Wednesday, BYU is still shooting nearly 52 percent on the year.
BYU returns four of its five starters for the 1999-2000 season. Freshman sensation Mark Bigelow, who left on a two-year LDS Church Mission to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in June, is the lone starter not returning. Bigelow led the team last year in scoring (15.0), rebounds (6.7) and steals (1.4). Senior forward Silester Rivers (11.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg), junior forwards Mekeli Wesley (11.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Nathan Cooper (9.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and sophomore guard Michael Vranes (10.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg) give coach Cleveland a returning nucleus of players for the first time during his tenure.
BYU has worked hard on its defense and should be a better defensive team than last season. The Cougars should also be a strong offensive club, but need forward Silester Rivers to get back to full strength (missed practice time with foot injury) before they can completely utilize all their offensive weapons. BYU has the ability to score in the post and from the perimeter. The Cougars' biggest weaknesses are size in the post and rebounding.
The Cougars rotation will include starters Matt Montague at point guard, Michael Vranes and Terrell Lyday filling out perimeter slots and Eric Nielsen and Mekeli Wesley playing in the post. Off the bench, Todd Christensen will see a lot of minutes at the point and provide offensive firepower from three-point range. He had 20 points on 5-6 three-point shooting in the EA Sports exhibition. Nathan Cooper will see significant minutes playing at the two or three spot while Silester Rivers will provide help for the Cougars post play off the bench. Freshman seven-footer Dan Howard should also some time in the middle.
Lyday averaged 17.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists to lead Fresno City College to a 32-4 record and conference title in 1999. An athletic player who can create his own shot, Lyday also made 102 three pointers on the season while shooting 42 percent from behind the arc. Two key players returning from missions are sophomores Eric Nielsen (6-9 forward), who scored 7.8 during his freshman year in 1996-97, and Matt Montague (6-1 point guard), who scored 6.2 ppg before his mission. Todd Christensen also returns (7.2 ppg).
BYU continued its steady improvement in Steve Cleveland's second season at the helm of the Cougars. Taking over a 1-25 program two years ago, Cleveland has guided BYU to 9-21 and 12-16 seasons. In 1998-99, BYU improved its home record from 4-10 to 9-5 and won its first WAC Tournament contest since 1994, upsetting heavily favored TCU 90-74.
Despite having the conference's most difficult schedule last season, ranked 41st toughest in the nation by USA Today, BYU was competitive in nearly every game. Six of the Cougars defeats were decided by four points or less, including an overtime loss to Arizona and one-point setback to California. The Cougars schedule included non-conference opponents Auburn, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington State.
Cleveland Enters His Third Year at BYU
Steve Cleveland enters his third season at the helm of the Cougars and had made made huge strides in rebuilding BYU's program in his first two seasons. Taking over a program that had just suffered a 1-25 season, Cleveland has improved the Cougars each season, posting 9-21 and 12 16 records and qualifying for the conference tournament in each season. Last year Cleveland coached BYU to its first WAC Tournament win since 1994 when the Cougars upset heavily favored TCU 90-74. The Cougars also improved their home record to 9-5 from 4-10 and were in nearly every game despite playing the conference's toughest schedule. They lost six games by four points or less, including one-point defeats to California and Washington State and an overtime defeat to Arizona.