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The 2004-05 Cougars may be a hard team to predict -- having lost seven lettermen, four with significant starting experience, including four-year starter Mark Bigelow and NBA lottery draft pick Rafael Araujo -- but with their talent and depth they definitely should not be overlooked in their bid to earn a fourth NCAA Tournament invite in five years and contend for the 2005 Mountain West Conference title.
BYU coach Steve Cleveland lost the services of five of the eight players who played double-digit minutes for him a year ago, including four of his top five scorers, but he returns six lettermen from last year's NCAA Tournament team and adds a top-20 recruiting class to give him significant depth at every position. His young squad, which includes seven sophomores and three freshmen, will be tested by what could prove to be one of the nation's toughest schedules.
"Our nonconference schedule should create great opportunities to prepare for league and postseason play," said Cleveland, whose team will play 16 potential regular-season games against teams that qualified for postseason last year, including four ranked in the top 25 of the final 2004 poll. "The Mountain West Conference is full of veteran teams returning top players. Obviously, we lost a lot of significant contributors from last year, but we plan to be competitive and compete for the conference championship. I want this team to learn to reach its full potential, to focus on being the best it can be. If we do, with this schedule, we'll have a chance to reach our goals in January and February."
While the relative youth of the BYU roster leaves some unanswered questions, the Cougars do have a good idea of what to expect from returning All-MWC guard and MWC Defensive Player of the Year Mike Hall. The 6-foot-3 senior had a knack for having his best outings in BYU's biggest games in his first season in Provo last year while becoming the team's third-leading scorer (12.8 ppg) behind Araujo and Bigelow. During the off-season, he has worked to add an improved outside jumper to his head-turning, get-to-the-hoop offensive athleticism. A versatile defender (1.4 spg) and strong rebounder (3.5 rpg) for his size, Hall should be the Cougars' all-around go-to player as an MWC Player of the Year and All-America candidate in his final college campaign.
Two other players return with starting experience. Senior forward/center Jared Jensen will once again become one of BYU's primary options in the post with the departure of All-American center Araujo. Jensen earned MWC Co-Freshman of the Year honors playing his more natural position of center before playing primarily at the power forward spot the past two seasons with Araujo on the roster. Jensen was an honorable-mention All-MWC pick as a sophomore but saw more limited playing time last season due to injury and the addition of former McDonald's High School All-American Garner Meads. Jensen started eight games in 2003-04 but came off the bench behind Araujo and Meads after missing three contests with a back injury. As a smart defender and good post scorer, Jensen has the potential to have an all-conference season for the Cougars. Meads showed promise in his freshman campaign last year, starting 18 games at power forward. With offseason surgery and a year of experience under his belt, Meads should become a stronger, more consistent force for BYU in 2004-05.
BYU adds six newcomers to the roster who all have the potential to contribute right away. Cleveland signed a recruiting class in November that was rated one of the top-20 classes nationally and the third-best class in the West. BYU received official commitments from top prospects David Burgess (Irvine, Calif.), Chris Miles (Provo, Utah), Trent Plaisted (San Antonio, Texas) and Lee Cummard (Mesa, Ariz.). Cummard, Arizona's 5A Player of the Year who was considered by some experts to be the top prep shooting guard in the West, decided in the spring to serve a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before enrolling at BYU. With Cummard's departure and the loss of starting point guard Luiz Lemes to graduation, the Cougars needed to fill their voids on the perimeter. BYU added two spring signings in Josh Reisman, a 6-foot-1 junior combo guard from San Jose City College in San Jose, Calif., and Keena Young, a 6-foot-6 sophomore guard/forward from South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. A third player with junior college experience, 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Sam Burgess, joins the Cougars after returning from a two-year mission. Playing for Snow College (Utah), Burgess led the Scenic West Athletic Conference in three-point accuracy in 2001-02, making 49 percent (95-192) of his long-range attempts.
"I am very excited about this year's recruiting class," Cleveland said. "I believe this group of student-athletes represents a solid foundation for the program's success in the coming years."
Three other lettermen who played on last year's NCAA Tournament team -- senior point guard Terry Nashif, sophomore point guard Austin Ainge and sophomore guard Mike Rose -- are back along with two additional letterwinners -- sophomore center Derek Dawes and sophomore guard Jimmy Balderson -- who lettered during the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons, respectively. Dawes, a 6-foot-11 center, redshirted last season after returning from a two-year mission while Balderson returned from his missionary service in August and is a possible redshirt candidate this season. The roster is filled out by 6-foot-8 junior forward Josh Burgess, who sat out last year after transferring from Irvine Valley College.
One of the question marks entering the season is who will lead the Cougars with three-year reserve Terry Nashif, sophomore Austin Ainge and junior transfer Josh Reisman likely to compete for starting minutes at point guard. None have the size of departed 6-foot-3 point guard Luiz Lemes, who was the team's unsung hero in many respects last year due to good defensive ability, excellent floor leadership and strong scoring ability when needed, but all three bring solid skills to the floor for coach Cleveland. Nashif is a heady floor leader and excellent ball handler who can knock down the open jumper. What the 5-foot-10 senior lacks in size he will try to offset with good experience as the primary backup behind three different starters in BYU's all-time assist leader Matt Montague, Kevin Woodberry and Lemes. With an outstanding understanding of the game, Ainge possesses a knack for getting his teammates the ball when they can score. With good range on the perimeter, the 6-foot-2 Ainge will make a push to play a significant role in his sophomore season after an injury and limited action last year. Reisman is an excellent shooter who comes to BYU with two years of experience at Gonzaga and most recently San Jose City College. As the 6-foot-1 guard learns the BYU system, he should prove to be a significant addition in 2004-05. Sam Burgess, who returned from a two-year mission in May, joins the Cougars as a sophomore out of Snow College. With his size and shooting ability (49 percent from behind the arc at Snow College), he could also see some opportunities to play the point.
Mike Hall returns for his second season at BYU as the clear-cut starter at one wing position. Sam Burgess is a tough-nosed defender and strong shooter who will likely see some time at the 2-guard position, while sophomore sharpshooter Mike Rose is likely to make a significant impact as an explosive scorer from the perimeter. Getting his shot off is usually not a problem for the 6-foot-2 Rose. A true jump shooter with an exceptional vertical, he has range well behind the three-point arc. Last season in his first game as a college player, he set a BYU record with eight threes. Two other shooters -- Reisman and Jimmy Balderson -- could factor in at 2-guard. Balderson has good size at 6-foot-6 and averaged 4.0 points per game as a freshman in 2001-02 prior to serving a two-year LDS Church mission. After returning from his mission in August, he could redshirt the season to have time to fully get back into playing condition. The biggest question on the wing for the BYU coaches is determining who will replace four-year starter and career three-point leader Mark Bigelow at the small forward position. Hall could slide over and see time at the 3-position when others are playing shooting guard, especially when the Cougars go with a small lineup. Hall has the strength and quickness to be effective against taller opponents, as he demonstrated last season while guarding everyone from shooting guard to center. Sophomore transfer Keena Young will have the opportunity to earn significant time and could possibly line up opposite Hall as the starter at small forward. While Young does not present as deadly a three-point threat as the departed Bigelow, the 6-foot-6 swingman has Bigelow's size and is a strong rebounder and defender with good mid-range game. Hall and Young have the potential to lock down opponents defensively as perhaps the toughest defensive tandem on the perimeter in the entire conference. Freshman Trent Plaisted, a first-team all-state lefty out of San Antonio, Texas, has the potential at 6-foot-11 to see some time at small forward as he further develops his skills on the perimeter, giving Cleveland an option to go with a very big lineup. Balderson could also see some time at small forward.
BYU will not replace the dominating inside presence of NBA lottery pick Rafael Araujo but with two players returning with starting experience -- senior Jared Jensen and sophomore Garner Meads -- and the addition of three talented freshman and two players who sat out last season, the Cougar post should be solid in 2004-05. Jensen, the MWC Co-Freshman of the Year in 2002 as the Cougar starter, will get a lot more opportunities to get his hands on the ball his senior year with the departure of All-American center Araujo. Jensen started only 8 games last year due to injury and the emergence of former McDonald's All-American Meads at power forward. Jensen has started 58 games in three years, playing both post positions. As a good post scorer with soft hands, the 6-foot-9, 250-pounder should be a primary offensive option inside for the first time since his freshman season prior to Araujo's arrival. With his improved shooting range, Jensen will likely see time at both post positions. As an excellent free throw shooter with a total understanding of BYU's defensive system, Jensen will be a valuable component with all-conference capabilities. Another possible starter at center is Derek Dawes. The 6-foot-11 265-pound sophomore center redshirted last year after returning from a mission. His size is a strong plus as a shot blocker and defensive presence. He has a soft shooting touch for a big man with range to the three-point line. Freshman David Burgess, at 6-foot-10 and 265 pounds, is a power post player and strong rebounder. The prized recruit has the talent to be a factor in his first season as he adjusts to the Division I game. Meads returns at power forward after starting 18 games in his freshman campaign. The 6-foot-8 forward has explosive ability and a nice mid-range jumper. He shot 54 percent from the floor and averaged 4.2 points per game while playing through nagging injuries nearly the entire season. He will have good competition for playing time, however, with talented freshman recruits Chris Miles and Plaisted and junior Joshua Burgess pushing for time. Miles and Plaisted both stand 6-foot-11 and have the offensive game to be a threat on the perimeter. Miles is Utah's two-time reigning 4A State MVP out of Timpview High School in Provo. A quick and versatile player, Miles is a tough defender and outstanding shot-blocker. He finished his career at Timpview with nearly 300 blocks, second all-time in the Utah High School record book to former BYU and current NBA center Shawn Bradley. Plaisted is long and athletic and has a nose for making plays. A good rebounder and shot-blocker, the Texas all-state forward runs the floor well and has a soft south-paw shooting touch to 18 feet. Joshua Burgess practiced with BYU last season after transferring from Irvine Valley College. Older brother of new recruit David Burgess and cousin of Sam Burgess, another Cougar newcomer, Josh is an aggressive rebounder with a nice shooting touch. With his size at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, he helps give the Cougars one of the deepest frontcourts in the Mountain West Conference.