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Cleveland fulfills promise to Bigelow

SPOKANE, Wash. — Thursday morning's setting seemed fitting for the BYU basketball program — particularly head coach Steve Cleveland and junior forward Mark Bigelow. There they were — back together in the state of Washington, getting ready for an NCAA Tournament first-round game.

Six years earlier, Cleveland — then the Cougars' new basketball coach fresh out of Fresno City College and the junior-college ranks — was in Bigelow's home in Olympia, about six hours west of Spokane, trying to recruit the hot-shot prep player to a BYU team that had gone 1-25 the year before.

Cleveland was sharing his vision — restoring the BYU program to its high-standard traditions of earlier eras. "People everywhere we went — from recruits to coaches — said, 'This is not fixable,' that it can't happen," he recalled.

Bigelow, while fielding offers from the likes of Utah, Stanford and other Western schools, listened to Cleveland's plan.

"We just indicated to him that if he would just trust us, that we would believe that we could recapture the tradition of BYU basketball," the coach said. "It wasn't going to happen overnight."

Bigelow agreed and committed to BYU, the first prize recruit that Cleveland would land for the Cougars. "That was a big turning point," he said, "because he showed a lot of faith to come with us — a group of junior-college coaches with virtually no experience at this level."

Since then, Cleveland has redirected the once-struggling program, sharing the Mountain West Conference championship twice in the past three years and reaching the NCAA Tournament twice in the same period. And Bigelow has stepped in and performed in his three seasons (interrupted for two years for an LDS Church mission) and already is the Cougars' career leader in 3-pointers as a junior.

Where BYU once was and now is has not been lost on Cleveland or Bigelow.

"We had a conversation just recently where he came to me and said that things had played out exactly as we had talked out in his home six years ago," said Cleveland, admitting that "I'm not sure I really believed it (then), but as a coach I knew that was what I needed to say."

Actually, a Cleveland-coached BYU team won its first share of a MWC tournament and trip to the NCAAs two years ago. But Bigelow was proselytizing in Florida at the time, and the Cougars — just four years removed from its one-win season — was glassy-eyed when it came to the prestige of postseason.

"We had to win the conference tournament and get home late Sunday, with only a day or two to prepare (for the NCAAs), and I think even as a coach that we kind of got caught up in the whole element of the tournament. Certainly we were excited to be there, and we had a really good team, but I think as I look back on it, there were a lot of distractions."

He added: "Certainly happening in our fourth year — getting to the tournament and winning the conference — some maybe thought we were a little ahead of schedule. Now all we've done is raise expectations."

This time around, Cleveland and his staff have tried to diminish the distractions — which could be considered even greater, given all the national attention to the Cougars' No. 12 seeding and the assignment to a bracket that concludes with a Sunday regional final.

And the Cougars have made the return to prominence while Cleveland has learned to adjust to the challenges of players trying to work LDS Church missions into their college careers. For example, in Cleveland's first year alone, eight players or recruits left on missions.

"Just to balance the missionary situation at BYU, we knew it would take four or five years before we could actually get players that we recruited into the program to go on their missions and come back — we're just starting to see that now," said Cleveland, himself a returned missionary.

While other college teams have players who stay in the program for four or five years straight, BYU has players who play a year or two before stepping away for a two-year mission. Or sometimes recruits go straight on a mission right out of high school, before college.

"We had to pay close attention to that detail," Cleveland said. "We knew it would take some time."

The next step in the program-improvement process will be to win a tournament game, something the Cougars haven't done in 10 years.

So it has come to fruition this week in the state of Washington — Cleveland-recruited players, including returned missionaries, helping a Cleveland-directed program return to prominence.