By SETH LEWIS
These days, the BYU men’s basketball team giggles like a kid who locked his little sister in the closet and got away with it.
How else to explain the Cougars’ curious delight over a 22-11 season — their first 20-win campaign in five years — that left hoop pundits from Alpine to American Fork rubbing their eyes?
Or their amazement over the most remarkable turnaround since Truman beat Dewey?
Or their amusement over the way their Pee Wee-size front line befuddled bigger opponents?
“Yes, this team exceeded my expectations, and probably the expectations of a lot of people,” coach Steve Cleveland said.
“Probably the thing that surprised me the most was that we won 22 games with only two post players.”
And two very undersized post players at that: Eric Nielsen at 6-foot-8 and Mekeli Wesley at 6-9 — sort of.
“Mekeli is listed at 6-foot-9, but I can tell you he’s not a quarter-inch over 6-7,” Cleveland said.
That makes the Cougars’ in-the-paint defensive efforts against the likes of behemoths Utah and Notre Dame all the more mystifying.
But then, everything about the Cougars’ reversal from a 1-25 collapse three years ago was a regular X-file.
“It’s safe to say we’ve turned the corner and built a solid foundation for the future,” Cleveland said.
Especially with Cleveland at the helm.
The former Fresno City College coach has become Utah County’s newest celebrity after saving a dead-end program two years earlier than he thought possible when he took the job following the 1-25 debacle.
“Sometimes you get embarrassed by all the attention,” he said.
The reaction is natural after the Cougars won back fans and revived the tomb-quiet Marriott Center with a postseason surge to the Mountain West Conference tournament final and the Elite Eight of the NIT.
“To see how the players responded at the end of the season was very gratifying,” Cleveland said.
Particularly since it came after Silester Rivers was lost to knee surgery, leaving the Cougars with Nielsen, Wesley and a handful of unproven freshmen to man the middle.
“I crossed my fingers that neither Eric or Mekeli would get hurt,” Cleveland said.
He can breathe easier next season when the Cougars welcome a Top 25 recruiting class laden with big men, including 6-foot-9 Jesse Pinegar from Brighton High School and 6-11 Derek Dawes of Cottonwood High.
Just one problem: Their youth.
“I think people need to be a little patient with these freshmen,” Cleveland said. “There’s a big difference between playing high school basketball in Utah and stepping up to the Mountain West Conference.”
But add 7-foot redshirt Dan Howard to the return of everyone but Rivers and the Cougars’ interior troubles are seemingly forgotten.
“We’ll have a better basketball team next year,” Cleveland said. “I don’t know if that means we’ll win more games, but I know we’ll have better players with the guys coming in.”
Of course, that’s Cleveland’s biggest headache now — trying to make room for an overwhelming influx of talent, including:
–Three recruits: Pinegar, Dawes and Danny Ainge’s son, Austin, who will serve a mission first;
–Three transfers: Guards Travis Hansen (UVSC) and Trent Whiting (Utah), and forward Nate Knight, a bench player at Kentucky;
–A returned missionary: 6-foot-6 guard Daniel Bobnik.
That means serious scholarship shuffling, likely forcing some reserves to come back as walk-ons.
“We’re going to have to be very creative to make it all work,” Cleveland said.
But for a man who has had to do so much with so little, that is a welcome problem indeed.
CLASSIC AXED: After 26 years, the Cougar Classic won’t return next season, the Deseret News reported Wednesday.
The termination of the four-team tournament — which school officials had discussed for several years — became final when Cleveland’s staff drew up the 2000-01 schedule.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to attract name opponents for the payout we can offer,” athletic director Val Hale told the newspaper. “It’s been hard to get people excited about it.”
Plans for a Classic replacement — a one-night, preseason doubleheader of BYU and Utah playing big-name opponents at the Delta Center — are also questionable.
“It won’t happen next year,” Utah athletic director Chris Hill said. “It’s not a dead issue, we just haven’t made progress on it yet.”