- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- We know what you're thinking. We saw the same performance by BYU as you did Wednesday night. And, if you watched the Cougars get run over by Julius Hodge, fooled by Mike O'Donnell's over-the-top passes, and stunned by one 3-pointer after another by Engin Atsur, Illan Evtimov and Marcus Melvin at N.C. State, well then you probably have a pretty poor opinion of BYU.
But trust us, you caught the Cougars on a bad night. Because, outside of those 40 minutes on Tobacco Road, it's been an otherwise impressive, albeit a bit surprising, season for the boys from Provo.
Yes, the Cougars were outclassed by the Wolfpack this week in losing 89-62. But the same Cougars who looked lost in Raleigh beat Oklahoma State 76-71 when Rafael Araujo went off for 32 points. BYU also has defeated USC as part of a 10-3 non-conference. And despite its lone national television appearance before midnight not going as planned, one loss isn't going to lessen its coach's opinion of his squad.
"Oklahoma State can beat this team," BYU coach Steve Cleveland said of an N.C. State-Oklahoma State matchup.
Sure, Cleveland was upset about the lack of effort his team showed from the opening tip against State. In fact, he said it might have been the poorest performance of his team in three years. And it most certainly didn't help that the performance was broadcast on ESPN2, at a time when the majority of the country was still awake.
But, believe us when we tell you: BYU will likely wind up being the fourth-best team in the West. The pieces are there for the Cougars to end up behind only Arizona, Stanford and Gonzaga when the NCAA marches out its brackets in two months. BYU must still prove it can be consistently better than its in-state rival Utah, but it does enter Mountain West Conference action next week as the team to beat. It also helps to have the MWC's best player (Araujo) as well as possibly one of the league's top point guards in fellow Brazilian Luiz Lemes.
N.C. State head coach Herb Sendek, who is one of the best cerebral minds of the game, studied BYU on tape for days leading up to Wednesday's game. He is intensely into the art of preparation. And he hadn't raved about a point guard as much as Lemes in a long time. And he was obviously concerned about Araujo, who was all but taken out of the game early as the Wolfpack did a nice job of keeping the ball out of his hands while building a 20-point lead.
Still, the Cougars have bounce to their steps. They just didn't show much of it against N.C. State.
Besides Araujo, who managed to still hang a double-double on State (23 points, 10 rebounds) and is averaging nearly 21 points and 11 rebounds a game, the Cougars have a host of 3-point shooters in Mark Bigelow, Mike Rose and Kevin Woodberry. Again, they just didn't make enough shots early Wednesday night.
But a night like the one against State might help the Cougars in the long run. It's up to Cleveland, however, to get into his players' heads and find the toughness BYU's foes have shown of late. It might be his biggest challenge, but if he's successful, the Cougars could end up being a team that could win a NCAA Tournament game or two. Remember, this is a team that gave Connecticut fits in the opening round of the 2003 NCAA Tournament. But the Cougars had Travis Hansen, now an NBA player with Atlanta, who wouldn't let last season's team wander.
"This team doesn't have the personality right now to win road games in conference," Cleveland said. "We've won two or three neutral-site games, and a few on the road, but not of this caliber. Not like this."
But Cleveland has met every challenge in his time at BYU. When he arrived in 1997, the Cougars were coming off a one-win season. BYU has been in the postseason the past four years, twice reaching the NCAAs. But now that the talent is in place and expectations are high, getting the Cougars to play at a level necessary to beat an ACC team in their building is still a work a progress.
"No question,'' Cleveland said of getting BYU to play at a higher level. "That's been our concern. You can disguise it with a 10-3 record and have good wins, but you can't against a team from the ACC. We can't do this against the Mountain West (Monday at San Diego State). This is a trend I've seen the last four or five games."
BYU's problems start with a tendency to spot teams double-digit leads and then try and play catch-up. N.C. State burned the Cougars in the same manner. So, too, did Utah State, which held on at home to beat BYU, 76-74.
"We embarrassed ourselves on national TV, but you can't sit there and feel sorry for yourself," Cleveland said. "Utah is a good team, but LSU took it to them. You can't let these games impact you for another month. We're still good enough to compete and capable of playing a team like this in a much better situation."
For BYU to be a better team it has to fix its defensive deficiencies. The Cougars aren't suddenly going to be faster afoot, but they must learn to react a bit quicker. BYU stood around too much against N.C. State and watched as the Wolfpack ran their Princeton wrinkled-offense as well as they have under Sendek.
Still, inside the visitor's locker room after a 27-point loss, Cleveland and his trusted assistant Dave Rose couldn't get over how far they've come in bringing the program to the NCAAs and being a consistent presence in the West. The BYU program is now able to withstand the blow of losing a player to the NBA (Hansen). The talent hasn't dropped off with the recruitment of Araujo and Lemes, and the top players of the Mormon faith are staying true to BYU as the signing of David Burgess shows.
Prior to Wednesday's game, Cleveland and Rose had high hopes of beating State and reminisced about how bad BYU was when they got to Provo. The recruiting classes were all askew, with no balance as to who was on Mormon Church Missions. Athletic director Val Hale was talking outside the locker room about how the Cougars didn't have as much of an in with the top Mormon players in the state or beyond -- players like Mark Madsen or Matt Christiansen or Mark Pope -- prior to Cleveland's arrival. He spoke about needing a public relations change when then athletic director Rhondo Fehlberg hired the unknown Cleveland out of Fresno City College seven years ago.
"Sometimes we just laugh about it,'' Cleveland said about how far they've come. So far, in fact, that the Cougars are getting N.C. State to return to the Marriott Center. The Wolfpack will be the first ACC team to play on BYU's floor in 30 years.
So, the game against N.C. State may not have shown BYU is a national player. Still, there was a time when BYU Basketball was irrelevant. That's not the case today. BYU is actually more of a consistent basketball school than football at this juncture, which speaks volumes as to where Cleveland's program is in 2004.
So, again, don't judge this team on the primetime loss to N.C. State. Stay up late and check them out on Big Monday this season. We won't appologize for BYU, or guarantee a win at 2 a.m. But we've seen enough from these Cougars, not to mention the BYU program the past four seasons, to believe Cleveland's squad can beat an ACC -- or any other major conference's team -- come March.
Princeton to perfection
While BYU flopped, N.C. State played its best basketball game under Sendek this season -- if not its best game during his eight seasons in charge.
The offense was about as fluid as Sendek could have hoped. The players really did get the concepts and the passing was absolutely sensational. If N.C. State plays this well during the ACC season, the Wolfpack will be hard to beat in Raleigh and could easily challenge Maryland and Florida State for fifth place (Sorry, but we're giving the nod to Duke, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and North Carolina in the top four).
If State is a consistent threat, don't be shocked to see seven, that's right, seven NCAA bids come out of the ACC.
Hodge had one of those special games with 23 points, six assists, one turnover and four steals. He also got to the line and made all five of his free throws. He looked like he was a player of the year candidate. Sendek also has a find in O'Donnell, who plays with tremendous grit. He's also a timely passer. Melvin, Atsur and Evitmov pass and move without the ball as well as any players Sendek has had of late.
Again, if they can continue to do what they did against BYU, this team really does have a chance to challenge for an NCAA bid. N.C. State's two losses were at Michigan in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and at South Carolina.
"Our guys do feel good about ourselves," Sendek said. "But we don't have a big margin for error. We can't go through the motions and expect to win. We have to play like we did (against BYU). We have to have a team that honors preparation and keeps the turnovers down (seven to BYU's 17)."
Sendek even got emotional at one point, waving his arms and motioning to the crowd to get them on their feet. If those who showed up didn't feel like cheering for this team, on this night, they shouldn't have shown up. If his team can play like they did against BYU on a consistent basis, Sendek deserves better treatment then the apathy showed by State's fans.
"I'll focus on the things that I can control," Sendek said of the occasional complaining that he's not flamboyant enough or doesn't win enough like his counterparts along Tobacco Road. "I don't let anything get personal. My primary goal is to be the best teacher of the game I can be. My focus can't be on Herb Sendek if it is then I'm not being a good leader."
His students get straight 'A's' to listening him in class the past week.
Listen to Roy
Speaking of coaches trying to get his players to follow his wisdom, Roy Williams just wants his players to listen to him. If they do, maybe the Heels will understand what they should do in critical situations.
Exhibit A: North Carolina's triple-overtime loss to Wake Dec. 20 in Chapel Hill.
Just listen to Williams:
"We're two points ahead with 2.6 seconds left, and we've got an out-of-bounds in the corner, so I call a timeout. We don't want to foul. I tell our guys this is the way we're going to defend. I ask if everybody is OK and understands. I said, again, 'We don't want to foul on an outside shot.'
"So we go on the court and Raymond Felton is about 10 feet away from where he's supposed to be. He was supposed to be pressuring the ball. I motion and scream to get someone to get Raymond's attention. Sean (May) sees me and thinks I meant for him to go over there. So Sean goes over and the ball goes down to his man and then back out to Chris Paul, who Raymond was supposed to be guarding. He wasn't 10 feet from him. And then (Melvin) Scott goes out and clobbers him."
Paul hit two of the three free throws with 1.2 seconds left to send the game into the second overtime. Wake Forest won in the third extra session.
"They didn't listen to me in the huddle, and Melvin then tries to be the hero by trying to block the shot," Williams said. "Do what I say and we win the game. They all think they can make a play. Hey, Michael Jordan passed off to Steve Kerr and John Paxson and helped his team win championships."
"We've got to get where we're more disciplined," Williams said.
Williams said he's thinking about his program, not just this one season. He said he told athletic director Dick Baddour that if he wanted someone to coach just a basketball team, he's not the guy. He returned to UNC to rebuild a program and he won't compromise or change his standards.
"Our guys have to be willing to do the little things to help our team," Williams said.
Williams said he would substitute more often. He said May isn't in the shape necessary to play the way Williams did at Kansas. The problem is that he can't get May into that kind of shape because he doesn't want to run him too much and put stress on his foot again.
"I'll sub more around TV timeouts," Williams said.
But, again, Williams won't stand for poor effort (read: McCants) if the player wants to stay on the court.
What We're Hearing At ...
At Xavier ... The Musketeers biggest problem early this season has been Romain Sato and Lionel Chalmers thinking they should carry the team almost by themselves in David West's absence. Both struggled early but recently have been more consistent. Xavier's win over Alabama shows the pair's progress.
"We're a lot better now,'' Xavier assistant Sean Miller said. "Hopefully we're ready to go now."
As in ready to make a run at an NCAA bid after losing games at Ball State, Mississippi State and Iowa State plus Indiana in Indianapolis.
Sato was a combined 4 of 16 against Ball State and Mississippi State. Sato scored 13 against Alabama but was much more selective. Chalmers was 3 of 16 against Ball State. He, too, was more selective in the win over Alabama, shot 4 of 11 overall, 2-for-4 on 3-pointers, for 10 points.
Xavier gets Saint Joe's at home (Jan. 17) in the one time they match up this season. Obviously, Xavier is confident that it can pull off the upset. It might need to in order to get the committee's attention.
At Rutgers ... Scarlet Knights coach Gary Waters still thinks Rutgers deserved to beat Connecticut on Tuesday night. He didn't back down from his postgame comments.
"They didn't deserve to win," Waters said. "But since they did that's why they're No. 1 in the country ... because they came into this environment and won. But we outplayed them. We were more physical. It was our tempo. They couldn't get out in transition."
But Connecticut did win, as Rutgers failed to put Connecticut on the line with seven seconds left in a one-point game. And, this is the same Rutgers team that couldn't win at Georgetown, either.
"They pressed us and jumped on us, and we turned the ball over 12 times in the first half, and they scored 16 points off of that," Waters said of the loss to the Hoyas. "We had three opportunities to win, and we didn't capitalize on them. In February, this will be a different team. But we will have played our first four Big East teams (Georgetown, Connecticut, Providence and Pittsburgh) that have a combined record of 50-2 (actually 35-2 at the time)."
At Arizona ... Associate head coach Jim Rosborough said Lute Olson's outburst at Arizona State was "the best thing he has done in 10 years." Rosborough said the players on the team loved that Olson snapped back at the ASU crowd last Saturday when they were taunting him and the team. As a result, Olson pointed to the scoreboard, a move that ASU coach Rob Evans called a "classless act." Rosborough said the players haven't seen Olson, who is usually stoic, react in such a way. He said it has changed the players' perception of Olson and humanized him even more for the players.
At Miami ... Following the loss at North Carolina, Perry Clark learned one thing about entering the ACC -- get bigger and stronger post players. The Miami coach said he's got to add more bulk to his post players when he's out recruiting for the 'Canes move to the ACC in 2004-05.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.