From Top To Bottom, MWC Offers No Easy Draw
The Provo Daily Herald Feature Story
Feb. 22, 2002
PROVO - People are asking BYU men's basketball coach Steve Cleveland which MWC rival he'd prefer to play in the first round of the MWC tournament, March 7-9 in Las Vegas. And his answer is . ..
"I don't want to play any of them," Cleveland said. "If I'm the first-place team in this league, I'm not that excited about playing Colorado State."
It looks now like BYU (16-8, 6-5 MWC) will play New Mexico or San Diego State in the first round. The Cougars split with both this season.
Cleveland said since the MWC is pretty equal from top to bottom, seeding is not a concern.
But the Cougars enter Saturday's game against Utah tied with UNLV for third place in the MWC. The Rebels (15-9, 6-5) finish league play with home games against San Diego State, Air Force and New Mexico. The Cougars, 1-8 on the road, must travel for two of their final three.
BYU is a game-and-a-half ahead of sixth-place New Mexico. If UNLV takes third place and the Cougars finish sixth, they'd face tournament-host UNLV in the first round.
BYU does well in the Thomas & Mack Center against neutral competition. But the Cougars have beaten UNLV just once in their last five tries in Las Vegas.
San Diego State (16-10, 5-6) is finally meeting its potential and has won three straight. The Aztecs beat Wyoming in Laramie on Monday. New Mexico (14-10, 4-6) finishes league play with four games in eight days. Two are on the road.
"Because of depth and experience, Utah and Wyoming have been able to win on the road and that's what separated them from the rest of the league," Cleveland said. "That's the same reason we won the league last year. We had seniors, we had people that had been through it before. And we found ways to win those close games. It may carry over to the tournament, as well."
HOLDING BACK: The BYU women's team (16-8, 7-4) would play Utah in the first round of the MWC tournament if it started today. Utah (13-10, 6-5) is BYU's opponent Saturday.
"If you think you're going to play somebody, you might not put something in," coach Jeff Judkins said.
So don't look for anything new from the Cougars Saturday.
If BYU wins its final three games -- the Cougars visit UNLV Thursday and San Diego State March 2 -- it would have a good chance at the second seed. That would enable BYU to avoid No. 20 Colorado State, which swept the Cougars, until the final round.
QUOTEWORTHY: Cleveland on Jesse Pinegar: "He's healthy now, but basically not in the rotation and probably won't play unless it's supplemental minutes at the end of a ball game. He's not in a position to defend and play with the kind of intensity and energy and strength that we need him to play at. He's just not there yet."
STRANGE STATS: Monday's 67-51 win over Air Force was strange for several reasons, but none bigger than the lack of offense from two of BYU's three leading scorers. Mark Bigelow scored three points and took four shots. Eric Nielsen totaled two points on two shots.
Cleveland said Bigelow's thigh bruise, suffered Saturday, limited his defense and ball-handling. So Cleveland held his play to 24 minutes.
"Mark is already worn out -- why continue to beat a dead horse?" Cleveland said.
But Cleveland was also pleased with the contributions Daniel Bobik (eight points) and Jimmy Balderson (five points) made off the bench.
"The bottom line is if we're going to win other tough games this year, Jimmy and Daniel are going to have to be a part of it," Cleveland said.
TIP-INS: Late Thursday, Nielsen was named to the Academic All-District VIII team. Nielsen has a 3.26 grade point average and is majoring in civil engineering. ... The men start at 1 p.m. Saturday and will be live on KJZZ-TV. The women start at 4 p.m. and KBYU-TV will air it live. ... Judkins said leading-scorer Erin Thorn is still recovering from a cold that has hampered her play for a couple of weeks. ... Center Jared Jensen leads the MWC in field goal shooting -- 62 percent.