PROVO -- The first clue that BYU basketball has changed is that Steve Cleveland has stopped talking about rebuilding. There's no more explaining how he took over a depleted program, no recounting how many missionaries have left or are leaving. This year he's only talking about those who are here.

The second clue is the attitude. This year's Cougars are packing an unmistakably bullish disposition. They're figuring other teams put on their gym shoes the same way they do. They're thinking if you can't beat 'em, you just need an attitude adjustment."I think everyone expects to win," said freshman Michael Vranes. "And when we don't, we don't just sit and say, 'Oh, we gave it our best shot.' There's no excuses."

"There's a different aura about this team. We don't expect to lose, or just get lucky and win. We're expecting to win. That's the bottom line," added forward Mekeli Wesley.

Certainly the Cougars of 1999 are quickly putting distance between themselves and the 1-25 Cougars of 1996-97. Last year, Cleveland's first as head coach, they improved to 9-21 but struggled with losses such as the 29-point defeat at Washington State and the 30-point loss to Penn State. They took their defeats like a team used to losing, talking about giving their best and making progress in small increments. This year that has shifted; they don't take their losses nearly so timidly. There's no shrugging and going out for pizza; now when they lose, they get mad.

"If we lose, I can't stand it. I can't sleep, I can't do anything after a loss," said Vranes.

This year, the Cougars are serious about winning. They're not the best in the WAC by a long shot, but they aren't the worst, either. Saturday night they took talented Fresno State into the final two minutes before losing 79-75. Afterward, they made a point of saying the close call wasn't a fluke. In their minds, not only could they have won, they were supposed to win.

"I don't think anyone here is fooling themselves," said Cleveland. "We're not Utah, and we're probably not New Mexico or Fresno. But every guy in this pro- gram believes that whether it's this year or next year, we are going to be where they are."

Such talk hasn't happened in some time in Provo. The program actually started to decline in 1995-96, the year Shawn Bradley would have been a senior. He decided $45 million was a pretty good reason to skip class, and so he left for the NBA after playing just one year in Provo. Roger Reid had recruited on the premise Bradley would return from his mission to lead the team. He did -- down the tubes. Other top players transferred, went on missions or signed with other schools out of high school, and Reid was suddenly stuck with a lot of future accountants, attorneys and sales reps -- but no NBA players.

The 1999 Cougars aren't all the way back, by any means. They're not in danger of winning a WAC title. But they are respectable, with an 8-9 record, 3-2 in the conference, just one win shy of what they had all last year. They surprised San Jose State by 31 points a week ago.

Along the way, the Cougars have stayed close to all but three teams. Auburn beat them 62-43, Oregon won 93-62 and Utah took a 75-54 win.

Otherwise, they've been, as they say in coachspeak, "right there." They lost to nationally-ranked Arizona, 78-74. They lost by a point to Washington State, beat Utah State, and won three straight WAC games. By the time they met Fresno they were figuring they didn't just belong there, they deserved to win.

This week the Cougars return to the scene of the crime: UTEP and New Mexico. Last year they routed nationally ranked New Mexico, then beat the Miners in triple-overtime. That led to a decent showing in the WAC Tournament, in which they lost by just three to Tulsa. With the return of Vranes from a mission and a long string of ankle surgeries, and the addition of starting freshman Mark Bigelow and junior college transfer Silester Rivers, they're no longer a joke, they're a threat.

So if you turn on the TV this week and aren't sure who the confident guys are in the blue and white uniforms, that would be the New and Improved Cougars. Check them out. You'll notice two things: First, they'll probably be in a close game, and second, if they do lose, they won't be taking it gracefully.