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New-look Cougars confident of talent

Steve Cleveland
Steve Cleveland

PROVO — After losing several star players and adding a bevy of freshmen, transfers, redshirts and returned missionaries, the BYU basketball program has a new look.

That's why during media day Wednesday at the Marriott Center, introductions were in order for reporters trying to familiarize themselves with the 2004-05 Cougar roster. All that was missing were name tags.

So what do the major changes in personnel mean for a team that was picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West Conference by the media? Are they a sign of a rebuilding year at BYU?

"There are a lot of new guys, but there is a lot of talent," said guard Jimmy Balderson, who returned from an LDS mission in August. "This team is packed with talent. We just need to work hard in practice. We'll probably make some mistakes in the games early in the season, but we'll keep getting better."

Gone from last season's 21-9 team are Rafael Araujo, Mark Bigelow, Luiz Lemes, Kevin Woodberry and Jake Shoff. Stepping in are freshmen big men Trent Plaisted, Chris Miles (a former Timpview High standout) and David Burgess; juco transfers Keena Young, Brock Reichner and Joshua Reisman; returned missionaries Balderson and Sam Burgess; and redshirts Derek Dawes and Joshua Burgess.

"They have a lot of energy and they all play really hard," coach Steve Cleveland said of the new players. "In terms of execution, the learning curve is large — about the size of this arena. They're all wanting to get better. They all have that desire. I need to have patience with them. There's a lot to learn and they will all have the chance to play. Some will play more than others and some will have their chances at different times."

Dawes knows that Araujo, a first-round NBA draft pick last June, leaves big shoes to fill. But he says he and his teammates are ready for the challenge.

"We're just going to play BYU basketball," Dawes said. "At the center position, if we do what we need to offensively and defensively, we'll be just as successful as we were last year. We're proud of (Araujo) and what he did here, but we realize he's not here anymore and it's up to us to do what we can do."

Fortunately for the Cougars, they return a number of veterans — Mike Hall, Jared Jensen, Garner Meads, Mike Rose, Austin Ainge and Terry Nashif. "We have a lot of new faces, but the expectations are the same," Hall said.

Young understands the standard that has been set by the program.

"The first thing coach Cleveland told me when he was recruiting me was, 'Our intentions are to win the conference championship and get back to the NCAA tournament,' " Young said. "Nothing's changed. Just new faces."

BYU will be severely tested from the start as it opens the season Nov. 22 against national powerhouse North Carolina in the Maui Invitational. Their second game will be against either Stanford or Tennessee. The rest of BYU's preseason includes meetings with Utah State (twice), Southern California and North Carolina State.

Dawes likes the challenging schedule.

"We're looking forward to it because we know we can play with these guys," he said. "The coaches wouldn't have scheduled those teams if they didn't think we could do that."

BYU women's head coach Jeff Judkins welcomes four returning starters — including leading scorer Julie Sullivan at the point and leading rebounder Danielle Cheesman along the blocks — from a team that lost a number of home games and close contests to finish the 2003-04 season at 15-14 overall.

"It was a long summer," said Judkins. "I've been wanting to get going, because of the new players and to get the bad taste out of our mouths."

The new players include a quartet all over 6-foot-2 — freshmen Mary Martha Abel, Lauren Riley and Summer Sykes and JC transfer Danielle Kubik — as well as local standout Mallory Gillespie of Mountain View.

The Cougar women open the season with a Nov. 2 exhibition at Westminster College and a Nov. 19 regular-season opener at home against Southern Utah.

Both the BYU men's and women's teams will be in action Friday at the Cougar Tipoff. It will feature a full-length men's scrimmage, two-ball shooting contests, a slam-dunk exhibition, contests, giveaways and an autograph signing party. Marriott Center doors open at 5:30 p.m. for the event, with team introductions beginning at 7 p.m.

Scott Taylor contributed to this report