SAN DIEGO — It's one of the top feel-good stories of this year's NCAA Tournament.

A nice guy named Steve Cleveland transforms BYU's 1-25 federal-disaster-area-of-a-program into a 24-8 conference champion in four years. Media members around the country covering the tournament have been lapping it up and publicizing it this week.

Tonight, the saga continues as No. 12 seed BYU faces No. 5 seed Cincinnati in the first round of the West Region at Cox Arena (tipoff is approximately 8:30 p.m.). As far as the underdog Cougars are concerned, there are more chapters to be written. They don't want this fairy tale of a season to end just yet.

"It's what you dream of as a kid, being in the NCAAs," said forward Mekeli Wesley, "and you know when you lose, you are out."

"We're not just happy to be here," Cleveland said. "We want to make some noise. Our intention is to win this ballgame."

An upset victory would officially put BYU back on the proverbial college basketball map. That's the thing about the Big Dance — everything is magnified a thousand-fold.

"It's not too often we get to play in games like this," said guard Trent Whiting. "It's a big step for our program."

Standing in the Cougars' way are the Bearcats (23-9), regular-season Conference USA champions. Compared to the undersized teams in the Mountain West Conference that BYU is used to, Cincy looked like an NBA squad in terms of physical presence during Wednesday's shootaround. For instance, starting center B.J. Grove is 6-foot-11 and his backup is 6-11 Donald Little. "They're athletic," said BYU forward Nathan Cooper. "They run and gun and are high-flying."

The strength of the Bearcat squad is the guardline. Steve Logan averages nearly 18 points per game while Kenny Satterfield averages 14 points and five assists. The duo isn't lacking self-esteem, either. "If we are playing a fast-paced game, we know how to play that," Satterfield said. "If we have to play halfcourt, we can do that, too. It all depends on how the tempo is. We really determine our tempo. Steve and I can play whatever tempo we want."

Generally speaking, the Bearcats seem blissfully unconcerned with the Cougars. After all, didn't another Conference USA squad, Memphis, pummel MWC co-champ Utah at the Huntsman Center in the NIT on Tuesday?

But before you scrawl Cincinnati's name into the second-round bracket of the office pool, consider that BYU has a chance to advance. The Cougars, after all, have won 11 of their last 13 games—including seven on the road.

What BYU must do to beat Cincinnati is no mystery:

Get Big Numbers From The Big Three. Whiting, Wesley and Terrell Lyday have willed BYU to victories the past two weeks. The trio of seniors scored 177 of the Cougars' 215 points in the MWC Tournament and as a team BYU shot a sizzling 61 percent from 3-point range. Can the Cougars keep that type of production up against the Bearcats, who will likely double-team Wesley and trap Whiting and Lyday?

"We have to be the aggressor. We have to take the ball to the hole and get post touches," Cleveland said. "If we're back on our heels and trying to run our offense from 30 feet, it's going to be a long night."

Jump Out To A Strong Start. This is something BYU has done plenty of times this season, though only recently has it figured out how to finish teams off. "There isn't anything I would love more than to get out to a good start and hang on and win," Cleveland said.

Get To The Free Throw Line. BYU leads the nation in free throw shooting—78 percent—which comes in handy, especially in close games.

Defend. All year, the Cougars have been able to contain the opponents' top scorer. The challenge for Lyday and Whiting is to slow down Logan and Satterfield.

Rebound. Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins calls his 2001 squad "the worst rebounding team I've had in 20 years." But that's all relative. "A big challenge for us will be to keep them off the offensive glass," Wesley said. "They crash the boards really hard." BYU is not a dominant rebounding team, but it has a 14-0 record when it outrebounds its opponents.

If the Cougars are successful in those five areas, they will move on in the tournament. If they don't, they'll be packing for Provo. BYU doesn't want to close the book on this season just yet.

"This is a great way to finish my senior year, playing in this tournament," Cooper said. "Hopefully, we have a lot of basketball still to play."


E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com