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Cougs open with high hopes

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PROVO — Coach Steve Cleveland opens his fourth season Tuesday night, against Elon College, with the deepest and most talented lineup he's had at BYU.

Expectations are high. The Cougars themselves say anything short of an NCAA Tournament appearance in March would be a disappointment.

"The bar has definitely been raised," said senior Nathan Cooper. "It was a fun ride last year. Our goal is to get to play for the conference title and go to the NCAAs."

Why not? The Cougars, who finished 22-11 with an NIT quarterfinals appearance in 1999-2000, boast an intriguing mix of veterans and newcomers.

Still, BYU is not as deep as it appeared to be a couple months ago. Several Cougars aren't even playing right now.

Point guard Michael Vranes will be out this season after undergoing major ankle surgery. McDonald's All-America Garner Meads sustained a punctured lung during a freak play at practice and will redshirt this season. Meads' former teammate at Brighton High, Jesse Pinegar, also will redshirt after suffering a stress fracture in his foot.

Meanwhile, swingman Travis Hansen sustained a serious groin pull in practice last week. He missed BYU's final exhibition game and is questionable for Tuesday's game. Star guard Terrell Lyday also sat out last week's exhibition contest and is listed as probable.

Without Lyday and Hansen, the Cougars struggled against the California All-Stars. "You can see why Travis and Terrell are so important to our team," Cleveland said.

Meanwhile, Utah transfer Trent Whiting, a point guard, and Kentucky transfer Nate Knight, a forward, won't be eligible until December.

Fortunately for the Cougars, there's still a lot of firepower on the roster. Though they have a bunch of players sidelined, all five starters — Cooper, Lyday, Mekeli Wesley, Eric Nielsen and Matt Montague — are either juniors or seniors.

"This is the first time since I've been here that we've had a group of seniors on the team," Wesley said.

Plus, the Cougars welcome talented newcomers in Hansen, Daniel Bobik, Jake Chrisman and Derek Dawes. The key to the 2000-01 season will lie in BYU's ability to assimilate the new players into the system. "This year, it's not about depth. It's about inexperience," Cleveland said. "The biggest concern I have is getting the new players acclimated to playing at this level. It's an adjustment."

Until they do adjust, the Cougars will lean on their veterans.

And, of course, Cleveland is preaching defense. "Certainly this is the most athletic team we've had since I've been here," he said. "But I also know athleticism is overrated if you don't execute. We have to defend like we defended last year if we want to reach any of our goals."

The Cougars' preseason schedule should allow the young players to learn on the job and gain confidence. BYU's non-conference foes include San Francisco, Arizona State, Florida International, Rice, Boise State, Weber State, South Alabama, Idaho and Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Tuesday's opponent, Elon College, is a Division I program from North Carolina.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com