PROVO — There is one player on BYU's basketball team who has earned the right to be the focus of attention heading into this weekend's Mountain West Conference media preview, at least according to coach Steve Cleveland.
That player is senior Mike Hall, the MWC defensive player of the year in 2003-04.
The Cougars will likely be picked to finish in the middle of the MWC pack this weekend, according to Cleveland, who said returning players lacing rosters of Utah, UNLV and New Mexico give them a huge boost.
"Those teams will be the favorites because of who they have back," Cleveland said.
This week, the Cougars used different combinations on three different practice squads.
On one of those squads, coaches placed the team's most experienced players. They include the 6-foot-3 Hall, shooting guard Michael Rose, point guard Terry Nashif, center Jared Jensen and 6-10 freshman Trent Plaisted, who is playing in a rotation that would normally be manned by sophomore power forward Garner Meads.
Meads continues to work out sparingly following a double hernia operation. He is still two weeks away from being cleared to play.
Aside from Hall, BYU's other four starting slots are up for grabs.
Cleveland's assistants praised the attitude in camp, which has a lot of new faces. These include incoming recruits David Burgess (6-10, 265), Josh Reisman (6-2), Sam Burgess (6-3), Keenan Young (6-6), Chris Miles (6-10, 235) and Plaisted (6-10, 220).
What stands out on this year's roster is player size. In drills, Plaisted impressed with his ability to put the ball on the floor and drive. David Burgess, the younger brother of former Duke and Ute center Chris Burgess, looked like a solid post banger inside.
With David Burgess and redshirt Derek Dawes (6-11, 275) joining Miles and Jensen (6-9, 250) inside, the Cougars have more size and depth than a year ago, albeit with players who have little experience. Dawes (6-11, 275) sat out last year following an LDS mission.
"I really like the group of guys; the talent level is very good," assistant coach Dave Rose said. "They're eager to learn and all very coachable. This is all evident the first week of practice. The younger guys have got to play for us to be really good, so we have to get them to learn quickly.
"We've got a tough schedule early, and they'll have to play for us. We have some experience, but most of it is practice experience, preparation experience instead of game experience with the exception of Garner Meads, Jared Jensen and Mike Hall, who have played a lot of minutes for us.
"I like their personalities, and we'll have to see what kind of leadership and chemistry we get."
John Wardenburg, another Cleveland assistant, said this squad's work ethic sticks out.
"We can't fault their work and how hard they are trying," he said. "Sometimes they don't know what they're doing, but they're still trying hard. The things we see that are bad for us are things we can correct through repetition, teaching."
One area slated for fierce competition is the starting point guard job. Nashif, a senior, is being pushed by Reisman and returning sophomore Austin Ainge. Former Snow College player Sam Burgess, fresh off a mission, has been impressive in conditioning drills while waiting for his jump shot — the tops in Region 18 before an LDS mission — to return. Burgess is often the leader after exhausting sprint drills.