Cougars to take on Falcons, try to fill hole with Rivers gone

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    By SETH LEWIS

    After the BYU men’s basketball team took Monday off, Tuesday’s workout was supposed to be a light one.

    What it turned into was boot camp.

    “It was an intense, focused practice — the kind of practice we needed,” coach Steve Cleveland said.

    That meant running — and lots of it — for every mistake.

    “We just got back to basics,” Cleveland said.

    That meant harping on what used to be the Cougars’ life preserver — their defense.

    And it couldn’t have come at a better time as the Cougars head into a season finale homestand against Air Force March 2 at 7 p.m. and San Diego State on March 4.

    “We definitely know the urgency of winning those two games,” Cleveland said.

    Urgency is right. Win these two and BYU — sixth in the Mountain West Conference at 5-7 — can possibly grab the fifth seed for next week’s league tournament.

    “We surely don’t want to go any lower than (fifth),” junior forward Mekeli Wesley said.

    Even more, an 18-9 team is just what the NIT likes.

    “Right now, it’s a little premature to think about the NIT,” Cleveland said. “We have to worry about Air Force.”

    Pick your worries.

    There’s the bulldozer-size hole in the middle caused by the sudden absence of Silester Rivers, who underwent career-ending knee surgery Tuesday.

    “Silester was the strongest guy on the team,” Wesley said. “He was able to do a lot of things that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.”

    Like providing the kind of body-bruising interior defense his teammates couldn’t.

    “That’s where we’re going to miss him — his wide body inside,” Cleveland said.

    Sure, Rivers’ absence probably won’t be felt immediately since Air Force (8-17, 4-8) and San Diego State aren’t much bigger than the diminutive Cougars.

    But the test will come if the Cougars’ draw a first-round date with UNLV’s Kaspars Kambala or Colorado State’s Ceedric Goodwyn in the MWC tournament.

    In the meantime, Cleveland will rotate John Allen and Nathan Cooper into the vacancy.

    “We’re all going to be playing a lot more with Les out,” freshman guard Marc Roberts said. “We were just saying in the locker room today, ‘It’s a lot different without Les.'”

    Question is, will it be different around the basket?

    “The No. 1 thing we have to do is rebound,” Cleveland said.

    That and stop the Falcons’ rebound specialist — freshman forward Tom Bellairs, who grabbed 12 boards in the Falcons’ 60-55 win a month ago.

    “That was a fantastic job on his part, and a terrible part on the guy who was guarding him,” Wesley said. “Most of the time it was me.”

    After juggling the starting guard lineup, replacing Matt Montague with Roberts in Saturday’s loss to Wyoming, Cleveland will start Vranes again at the point March 2, with Todd Christensen and Terrell Lyday on the wing.

    “You put three shooters on the floor … and it’s the best matchup against Air Force,” Cleveland said.

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