Dave Rose expects BYU basketball to take up where it left off last year — challenge for a conference championship — but do it while adopting a more physical makeup on the court.
Gone from last year's MWC championship team are four key players. League player of the year Keena Young is in Korea playing ball; point guard Austin Ainge is coaching at Southern Utah; shooting guard Jimmy Balderson is working in California; and sharpshooter Mike Rose is in the insurance business in Las Vegas.
But Rose expects a core of returning players to be both capable and motivated to keep the Cougar tradition alive. Within a week, Rose will find out which of his newcomers, transfers and recruits could contribute early.
"The biggest thing for us is to come together as a team," said Rose. "That's usually the biggest thing for any team, the biggest challenge."
Rose said he's already seen an identity in his team, one that is highly spirited, and he expects that to show as the Cougars begin formal practice this weekend.
"I expect it to be a physical and intense few days," said Rose. "... We'll know more about our team."
That may include some battles, black eyes, bloodied noses, bumps and bruises.
In August, just days after returning from a mission, one of the Cougars' most physical players as a freshman in 2004, center Chris Miles, had seven stitches in his face while playing pickup ball with his teammates. Consider it a welcome home for Miles and introduction to BYU's offseason conditioning program under strength coach Justin McClure.
Rose said he expects, from what he's seen in skill development this summer, the Cougars to be physical.
"'I'm in the best shape of my life," said junior small forward Lee Cummard. "Justin really tore into us this summer. I thought last summer was hard, but I think this summer was harder and that's a good thing."
Cummard said the returning Cougars believe they have the guns to be in the conference race.
"Anything less than competing for a championship and I think we underachieve," he said. "We have great guys. We had great guys a year ago."
One of the more interesting questions for Rose and his staff will be evaluating how MWC freshman of the year Jonathan Tavernari fits into the mix. He came off the bench a year ago and posed a big change-up for opposing defenses. He played power forward with a perimeter game, and at times that allowed Young to move to small forward.
"He's worked harder than anybody on the team, increased his vertical leap, his shot and overall game," Rose said of Tavernari.
The Cougars return a solid core of starters and lettermen, led by one of the league's best big men, 6-foot-11 center Trent Plaisted. Others include Cummard, Tavernari and Murdock. Senior Sam Burgess will play a major role this year and was voted a team captain.
Vuk Ivanovic and Gavin McGregor both return to shore up the Cougar front line.
Miles, a 6-10, 245-pound center, returns from his mission, and 6-11 James Anderson, who signed with BYU out of Page, Ariz., before going on a mission, also is in camp.
Evaluating and finding roles for new faces will be a major part of the first month of practice for the Cougars.
The Cougar staff welcomes a pair of junior-college transfers in 5-10 point guard Lamont Morgan and 6-5 guard Archie Rose (no relation to coach Rose). In addition, a new freshman class of recruits includes 6-8 forward Chris Collinsworth, 6-2 Jimmer Fredette, 6-1 Michael Lloyd, 5-11 Nick Martineau and 6-0 returning missionary freshman Matt Pinegar.
4 Question for the Cougars
• Will this version of the Cougars come together quickly and define roles after losing four key players?
• With Austin Ainge gone, how will the Cougars get Ben Murdock and a host of other candidates to step forward and man the point guard slot?
• How will the Cougars replace MWC player of the year Keena Young, their top rebounder and scorer?
• Will the Cougars be capable of playing defense at the intense, physical level expected by Dave Rose?
College hoops previews
The Deseret Morning News will preview local college basketball teams, which begin practice this weekend for the 2007-08 season:
Friday: Utah State
Monday: Weber State
Wednesday: Southern Utah