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BYU gets fresh start

MWC play to open after frustrating preseason

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PROVO — Frustration. Embarrassing losses. Inconsistency. Injuries. Losing streaks.

The BYU basketball program experienced all that and more in the first 14 games of the season. No wonder coach Steve Cleveland said his New Year's resolution is to exercise more patience and smile more often.

There wasn't much to smile about in the preseason.

"We've had a tough go of it," Cleveland said.

Still, he knows that what matters most is how his team competes in January and February in conference play. He's hoping the last couple of months of tribulation with a relatively young team will pay dividends.

BYU owns a 5-9 record heading into the Mountain West Conference season, which begins Saturday when the team hosts San Diego State. It's the worst preseason record in the MWC, and it's also BYU's worst preseason mark since Cleveland's second season in 1998-99, when it went 5-7.

The Cougars' streak of five straight postseason appearances appears to be in jeopardy.

Despite its troubles, BYU, which was picked to finish fifth in the conference in the preseason media poll, is hopeful the season can be salvaged.

"We started out really bad, but we've got a lot more games," said sophomore center Derek Dawes. "If we play our game, no matter who we play, we're going to be successful. The schedule we've played is helping us be a lot better. We're not intimidated by anybody. It will help us with league play."

After losing three starters and two other key players from last year's squad, which finished 10-4 in conference and 21-9 overall with a trip to the NCAA tournament, expectations weren't exactly high this season. But nobody expected BYU to struggle as much as it has.

Of course, the Cougars have played a difficult preseason schedule, one of the toughest in the league. They've gone 0-2 against the Atlantic Coast Conference (nationally ranked North Carolina and North Carolina State) and 0-4 against the Pac-10 (Stanford, California, Southern California and Washington State).

During the preseason BYU has suffered two three-game losing streaks, the kind of futility that has been unfamiliar to the program for years. Once unbeatable at home, the Cougars have lost three contests at the Marriott Center so far this season.

"We know we're developing," said guard Mike Rose. "That's one of the positives of starting out so bad; there's nowhere to go but up. We're still digging out of it, but we're going up."

For much of the preseason, BYU was a team trying to find itself, playing without a purpose. Yet the Cougars have made marked improvement lately. Before getting whipped at Saint Mary's last Tuesday, they had won three straight games. Trouble is, Saint Mary's is similar to the type of competition BYU will face in the conference. While the Cougars earned a victory at Weber State, can they win on the road in the MWC?

Cleveland's focus in the preseason has been helping his team improve in the offensive and defensive basics. "I want to see us guarding every possession. I want to see us execute in the offense so we're getting the shots we've got to get," he said. "We need to execute what we're supposed to run and then guard every possession."

Star guard Mike Hall (13.5 points per game) has been up and down this season, going through stretches where he'd force shots or settle for jumpers. Cleveland knows Hall needs to be at his best in conference play.

"He's playing better. He's moving better without the ball. He's shooting the ball less off the dribble," Cleveland said. "He's not dribbling into shots. I don't want him to dribble into shots. I want him to move without the ball, come off screens and attack the basket. He needs to attack the basket. He's doing a better job of that. For a while he was just satisfied with jump shots."

Sophomore Austin Ainge wrested the starting point guard spot away from senior Terry Nashif and is a proven scoring threat (9.3 ppg). Ainge has looked both spectacular (45 assists) at times and unimpressive (49 turnovers) at others. But he has not played in four years — following a mission, a redshirt and an injury. Now he has established himself as one of the team leaders. His fiery approach to the game is something the Cougars desperately need.

In the middle, BYU will depend on three post players: Dawes, senior Jared Jensen and freshman Chris Miles. Cleveland is looking for more aggressiveness from Dawes and Jensen. "They're really nice guys," he said. "That demeanor doesn't get it done. It comes down to aggression level. Jared's not always there. That's something he has to get better at. If we're going to compete in this conference, he has to improve his aggression level."

While BYU is without starting forward Garner Meads due to a foot injury, Cleveland is pleased with the emergence of junior college transfer Keena Young, who averages 6.4 point and six rebounds per game. "He's made as much stride as I've seen for a juco guy, especially a juco guy that wasn't a go-to guy at his juco," Cleveland said of the 6-foot-6 forward. "He was just a role player at South Plains. He needs to attack the basket, rebound and defend."

All in all, BYU is looking to continue getting better and cut back on inconsistent play, injuries and losing streaks.

And Cleveland hopes to be smiling a lot more come March.

Conference previews

BYU — Today

Utah — Saturday

UVSC — Jan. 14

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com