PROVO — Throughout the fall, the BYU football team's glossy record was called into question because of its poorly rated schedule. The Cougar basketball team doesn't have that problem. In fact, it has played one of the nation's toughest schedules so far this season.

That's according to the latest Jeff Sagarin NCAA ratings in USA Today, which ranks BYU No. 24 overall and has its schedule rated as the 12th-strongest in the country. Meanwhile, on Jerry Palm's CollegeRPI.com Web site, the Cougars are rated No. 21, and their schedule is rated as sixth-best.

"That says something about the first six teams we've played," said coach Steve Cleveland of his team's high Ratings Percentage Index.

At first glance, BYU's schedule — San Diego, Arizona State, UC Santa Barbara, Utah State, Weber State and Creighton — might not seem that formidable. Wednesday night, the Cougars host Fort Lewis, a Division II school from Durango, Colo., (tip-off is at 7).

Yet while BYU (4-2) is exceeding expectations, its opponents are also playing well in the preseason. The Cougars' first six foes have a combined record of 27-12, a .692 winning percentage.

Strength of schedule is factored heavily in these ratings, and BYU's RPI was boosted by beating Weber State (which has defeated Louisiana State, Wisconsin and Utah State) and Creighton (which has upset nationally ranked Western Kentucky). The schedule will get even tougher next week, when BYU faces Stanford in Las Vegas.

RPI rankings are based solely on games against Division I teams, so playing a Division II school like Fort Lewis (3-3) does not count against the Cougars' RPI or their strength of schedule.

"Scheduling a Division I team that's ranked 290th does a lot more damage than playing a Division II team," Cleveland said. "Still, I will be just as nervous for this game as any other. It's a game, and it has to be played. I'm concerned about us competing with the same intensity as the first six games. If there's a letdown, it will show. I'm focused on our team getting better."

The Fort Lewis Skyhawks belong to the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, and their coach, Bob Hofman, is a good friend of Cleveland's. That's why this game was scheduled.

"It's to help his program," Cleveland said. "They need help financially, and they needed a game. In fact, they're putting a scholarship in my name for doing this."

Cleveland and Hofman began their friendship years ago in Fresno, Calif., when Cleveland was the head coach at Fresno City College and Hofman was the No. 1 assistant under Gary Colson at Fresno State.

Fort Lewis is a small team that likes to spread the floor and hoist a lot of 3-point attempts, Cleveland said. The Skyhawks are shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and nearly 50 from the floor. They are led by Kevin Hatch (21.7 points per game) and Trevor Lorz (16.7 ppg).

NOTES: At No. 24, BYU owns the Mountain West Conference's best RPI by far. New Mexico is second (79) followed by San Diego State (106), Utah (119), UNLV (121), Colorado State (144), Wyoming (165) and Air Force (167) . . . While the Cougars have won 23 straight games at the Marriott Center (fourth-longest in the country), they have also won 19 in a row against non-conference opponents. The last BYU loss to a non-conference foe was 71-70 to California on Dec. 19, 1998.


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com