PROVO -- After two exhibition wins, BYU will tip off its 1999-2000 regular season Saturday when it hosts the UC Riverside Highlanders at 7 p.m. in the Marriott Center. The Cougars are coming off a 12-16 season in coach Steve Cleveland's second season while the Highlanders finished last year 14-13. UC Riverside won its season opener Friday night at home, defeating Dominican College 77-51.
A look at BYU's Exhibition Contests
Led by junior Todd Christensen, the BYU men's basketball team defeated EA Sports 87-59 in its last exhibition game of the season Tuesday. Christensen led the Cougars with 20 points and was five-of-six from three-point range. He finished the night shooting over 87 percent (seven for eight) off the bench for the Cougars. The Cougars finished the night shooting 17 three-pointers and hitting nearly 65 percent. Juniors Nathan Cooper and Terrell Lyday as well as sophomore Michael Vranes each added two three-pointers to Christensen's outpouring to give the Cougars the perimeter strength they needed to win the game. The Cougars shot 60 percent from the floor. The Cougars defeated the Nunawading Spectres from Australia 93-47 in their other exhibition game on Nov. 10. Mekeli Wesley led BYU with 20 points on 7-10 shooting.
Scouting UC Riverside
The Highlanders won their season opener Friday night at home, defeating Dominican College 77-51. Freshman Mark Miller led UC Riverside with 21 points in 21 minutes, including 3-7 from three-point range. Three starters are among six letterman returning from last year's 14-13 UC Riverside team. The Highlander roster includes three seniors, three juniors, one sophomore and eight freshman. Key returners include senior forwards Rion Nolan and Antwon Ellis and junior guard Jerald Gibbs. The 6-4 Nolan avared 7.8 points and 5.1 rebounds while 6-5 Ellis scored 9.2 points and pulled down four boards per contest. Gibbs, at 6-1 is expected to come off the bench this year. He averaged five points and 3.4 rebounds last season. Other players who will see a lot of playing time include probable starters Ryan Jordan, 6-0 senior point guard; Jason Labagh, 6-5 junior shooting guard; and Mark Miller, 6-6 freshman forward. Top newcomers joining this year's team include five high school recruits and one junior college transfer. Labagh averaged 17 points and six rebounds at Canada Junior College last year while freshman Trenell Eddings was a 25 points and nearly four rebounder performer at Eisenhower High School in Rialto, Calif.
This will be the first meeting between BYU and UC Riverside.
Div. 1 vs. Div. II
This is the only Div. II team BYU is certain to play this year. The Cougars could face another Div. II foe in the Cougar Classic if BYU and Western Oregon are matched up on the second day of the Cougar Classic. Western Oregon opens the Classic with Weber State and BYU plays Texas Southern.
BYU Head Coach: Steve Cleveland
Record at BYU: 20-37 (3rd year)
Overall Div. I record: Same
UC Riverside Head Coach: John Masi
Record at Riverside: 405-168 (21st year)
Overall Div. II record: Same
Series Record: First Meeting
Game Time: 7:05 p.m. MST
Network: KSL Newsradio 1160 AM
Air Time: 6:30 p.m. MST
Play-by-play: Greg Wrubell
Color: Mark Durrant
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 peremeter 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.