BYU coach Steve Cleveland and senior forward Eric Nielsen were in Denver Monday and Tuesday at the annual Mountain West Conference Basketball Media Day.
With the loss of five seniors and four starters from last year's MWC championship team, the media predicted a sixth-place finish for the Cougars in its preseason poll released Tuesday. Wyoming and Utah, who both return all five starters, were 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.
"We shared the regular season title with Wyoming and Utah last year and they both return five starters so I think they should certainly be the favorites," Cleveland said.
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.
After the hoopla of Friday's sixth annual Midnight Madness, BYU will begin official preparations for the 2001-02 basketball season with the team's first practice on Saturday.
"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."
With the loss of four starters from last year's 24-9 Mountain West Conference championship team, Cleveland does have some significant holes to fill in 2001-02. 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, as well as starting forward Nathan Cooper and top reserve forward/center Nate Knight.
In addition, Cleveland recently learned 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 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.
This year Cleveland will look to several talented newcomers and seven returning lettermen to play key roles. 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.
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 athletic forward earned a starting assignment last year before being injured. Bart Jepsen 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.
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 2-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.
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. He 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. Freshmen Jimmy Balderson, a 6-foot-6 combo guard from Alberta, Canada, who averaged 34 points 6.8 assists, and Terry Nashif, who was an all-state point from Vancouver, Wash. before his mission, could also contribute.
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 (6-11 sophomore) decided this summer he will leave on an LDS Church mission, two-sport athlete Jacob Chrisman (6-8 sophomore) has announced he will redshirt to test his professional prospects while playing a full baseball season, and forward Jesse Pinegar (6-9 redshirt freshman) injured his shoulder in June and will be out until at least December to recover from surgery.
Nielsen will play the 4-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.
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 and receive approval to play from the MWC. Carlisle is waiting to hear about his appeal of a MWC ruling that says he can not play this year and must also lose a year of eligibility because he played at conference member Utah, who was then in the WAC, in 1998. He is appealing because Utah did not offer him a scholarship to return. 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. At 6-foot-9, he is a physical player who runs the floor well and is a solid rebounder and defender.