Big man buys into BYU system
You can trace this sudden basketball transformation in Rafael Araujo -- from pretty good to rising force -- to last March, to a first-round NCAA Tournament game against Connecticut, to a matchup against Huskies center Emeka Okafor.
To, really, two blocked shots.
"Okafor got a few early and Rafael was a non-factor the rest of the way," BYU coach Steve Cleveland says. "It humbled him. After that game, he told me he knew how much work he had to do. He knew how much improvement there could be. He was determined to get better, but I don't know if anyone could have imagined this.
"He wasn't very coachable at times last season. He fought us on a lot of things. But now he does everything we ask."
Said USC coach Henry Bibby, whose team lost at BYU 85-61: "There is no answer for (Araujo). He's an unbelievable player. You can't stop him one-on-one. He's too big, too smart and will take BYU a long way."
The Cougars are using this preseason to prove what many believed months ago, that Cleveland's team is the one to beat in Mountain West Conference play. BYU suffered just its second loss against seven wins on Wednesday by falling at Utah State 76-74. The Cougars trailed 51-25 at halftime before making a furious comeback only to fall in the final second.
Their two defeats are by a combined three points.
But the difference between BYU being merely good and special come March, between just earning another NCAA berth and actually advancing in the draw, resides at center.
Araujo is the 6-foot-11 Brazilian who is making double-doubles more common than snow flurries in Provo right now. He averages 21.8 points and 10.9 rebounds while shooting 66 percent, the direct result of hours upon hours of tireless early-morning summer workouts.
Araujo arrived at BYU from Arizona Western College with no point of reference in terms of the challenges Division I competition offers nightly. He played well last season -- 12.0 ppg, 8.9 rpg -- but struggled to defend with intelligence. He committed silly fouls on one end and became frustrated on the other, often standing and sulking when good positioning inside didn't always reward him the ball.
But with maturity has born these results: Araujo tied a conference record with five straight double-doubles recently and is the only league player to do so in a single season. Against Oklahoma State, he had 32 points, 17 rebounds and shot 10-of-15.
Last season: Post, seal, not get the ball, stand, sulk.
This season: Post, seal, not get the ball, post again, seal again ... and again and again.
"I have worked very hard on my skills,'' said Araujo. ""My goal in life is to play in the NBA, which will take more determination."
BYU has a different look this season, no longer receiving the ultra-competitive toughness of wing Travis Hansen (see Hawks, Atlanta). But perhaps more important than the outside compliment of senior wing Mark Bigelow or an expanded role in Hansen's absence, Araujo's numbers are in part a result of senior point guard Luiz Lemes.
The player who saw little time last season and who could less if he ever scored a point has started all nine games. Like Araujo, he hails from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"Our chemistry is very good,'' said Araujo. ""Luiz understands where I like the ball. The communication is very good between us. We are close on and off the court."
The summer schedule went like this for Araujo: Be on the court daily from 6-7 a.m. and in the weight room for another 60-90 minutes -- the latter helping to bulk his frame to 280 pounds. Often, when a team manager wasn't available to shag balls and feed Araujo in the post, wife Cheyenne obliged.
She is expecting the couple's first child in April.
"She always had early classes, so she didn't mind waking up," Araujo says. "There are many things going on in my life right now, but one of the biggest is making sure BYU has success this season. I must take care of my responsibilities for that."
Added Cleveland: "I really think his best basketball is ahead of him. He still needs to work on things defensively like showing on screens. He still has mental lapses there. But, no question, the best for Rafael is still to come."
Arizona -- 6-1 after a 12-point victory against visiting San Diego State on Monday -- gets even better (not to mention deeper) this week when 6-10 freshman forward Ivan Radenovic becomes eligible.
Radenovic is 19 and from Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, and played two seasons with a youth team in his hometown. The Wildcats next host their annual Fiesta Bowl Classic, opening against Liberty on Sunday.
"We're happy to have him," Arizona coach Lute Olson said. "The guys really like him. He's very comfortable here and likes the way we play. He likes to run. He has a great feel for the game, a lot like (Luke) Walton. He has really good feet laterally. That's one of the biggest adjustments for European players. They're not used to defending that many quick guys."
There is no question the Wildcats need every body they can get, especially considering the Pac-10 season is just over a week away and Stanford is playing as well as anyone nationally.
One player who could aid in Arizona's quest to repeat as conference champion is sixth-man Chris Rodgers. The sophomore guard from Portland appears far more content this season (averaging 25.3 minutes will do that for a guy) and hurt SDSU with 17 points, four rebounds and three assists.
"He is as consistent a shooter as we have," Olson said. "He is really becoming a team guy. When you come from a (high school) situation where you have to score 35 every game for your team to have a chance, it takes time learning how to play with other guys who can really play. He has that now."
|Games to Watch|
UCLA at Michigan, Saturday
The Bruins lead this series 7-2 and are coming off a home win against Michigan State, but the Wolverines are 7-1 this season and beat UCLA last year in Pauley Pavilion. T.J. Cummings (13.5 ppg) has led the Bruins in scoring in each of his two games since becoming academically eligible.
Washington State at Gonzaga, Sunday
WSU coach Dick Bennett called his team ""incredibly bad'' after a 46-29 (no, that is not a misprint) loss to Fresno State on Tuesday. The Cougars, now 6-3, had nine points at halftime. Now they get to prepare for a Gonzaga team ranked 18th and averaging 77.1 points. Uh-oh.
Arkansas at Tulsa, Tuesday
Tulsa improved to 4-4 with a rout of Texas State on Tuesday and has now won 12 straight at home, longest streak in the WAC. The Golden Hurricane is 67-11 at the Reynolds Center.
Much of the credit for Sanders' development goes to SDSU assistant coach Gregg Gottlieb, who has worked for four years with the player on individual skills.
"Aerick is our No. 1 guy in terms of being able to learn something in practice and then implement it into games," said Gottlieb. "It all starts with one major intangible -- mental toughness. He is very comfortable now as a player. He spent his first two years going against an NBA caliber player in (Randy Holcomb) every day in practice. Aerick has added a dimension to his game every year in waiting for this opportunity."
"Kirk Snyder couldn't have picked a better time to showcase his skills. The Nevada junior earned WAC player of the week honors after averaging 15.5 points, five rebounds and three assists in wins against Alabama State and Kansas. He went for 29 points against the Jayhawks.
It was a strong week for the conference. In addition to Nevada beating a Top 10 team, SMU took care of then-No. 17 Purdue 60-59.
"I'm sure the whole county (of Weskan, Kan.) was watching (on regional television). Most of the people are KU fans. I think they're going to go for Nevada the rest of my career. It's scary when we play good. If that's the best we can play, that's OK with me."
-- Nevada point guard Todd Okeson after the Wolf Pack defeated Kansas. Okeson grew up in Weskan and dreamed of playing for the Jayhawks.
Ed Graney of the San Diego Union-Tribune is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.