PROVO, Utah (AP) - The 24th-ranked BYU Cougars open the season with a big target on their backs after advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament last season and with All-America guard Jimmer Fredette returning for his senior year.
“This team has received a lot of benefits of what past teams have done and we’ve addressed that,” Cougars coach Dave Rose said. “Hopefully we’ll realize starting Friday the challenge starts with this group to prove themselves to see how good they really are.
“I hope they take that as a challenge because I can promise you the teams that we’re playing will be extremely motivated to play us.”
The Cougars are coming off a 30-win season, including a double-overtime victory over Florida in the NCAA tournament - their first NCAA tourney win since 1993. It’s the first time they’ve opened a season in the Top 25 since 1980-81, the season Danny Ainge hit a miracle shot to lift BYU over Notre Dame and into the final eight of the NCAA tournament.
The test starts Friday night at what could be a sold-out Marriott Center against former BYU coach Steve Cleveland (1997-2005), who brings Fresno State to town.
“I’m happy he’s coming back because we sold a lot of tickets and hopefully we’ll sell a lot more,” Rose said of Cleveland. “But the one thing that is a little unsettling to me is the fact we’re playing a guy who has won more games in here than I have.”
Cleveland was 90-26 at home while with BYU, including three unbeaten seasons at the Marriott Center. Rose is 76-4 at home, with four straight trips to the NCAA tournament
The biggest hurdle for the Cougars figures to be replacing Chris Miles, who averaged 16.3 minutes, 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds a game.
“We don’t have a real defensive stopper in the middle as we did with Chris Miles, so defensively we’ll have a little bit different personality,” said Rose, who also lost Tyler Haws (serving a mission) and sixth man Jonathan Tavernari.
But everything starts with Fredette, who pulled his name out of the 2010 NBA draft only to spend a chunk of his summer competing against members of Team USA as part of a select group of top college players.
It was a chance for Fredette, who was named to five preseason All-America teams, to learn from the likes of Chauncey Billups and Rajon Rondo.
“He’s a pretty special player when he gets going,” Rose said of Fredette, who scored 49 points against Arizona last season and averaged 22.1 points and 4.7 assists in 2009-2010. “It will be real interesting to see how teams play him.”
The Cougars also return guard Jackson Emery, a backcourt starter with Fredette since the beginning of the 2008-2009 season. Emery, who has been hampered by a foot injury in recent weeks, set the BYU record and tied the Mountain West Conference record with 91 steals last season while hitting 85 3-pointers - tied for second all-time in Cougar history.
The third returning starter is Noah Hartsock, a 6-8, 230-pound junior forward who emerged as a shot-blocking presence late in the season.
Expected to join Hartsock down low is Brandon Davies, who averaged 5.4 points and 3.0 rebounds as a freshman last year, though sophomore Chris Collinsworth could get the starting nod. Guard-forward Charles Abouo, who gained valuable experience with the Cote d’Ivoire National Team this summer, brings versatility to the Cougars and will compete for minutes vacated by Haws.
Freshman guard Kyle Collinsworth, who followed older brother Chris to BYU, brings added depth in the backcourt.
“Our guard line is pretty settled; it’s our front line we’re going to have to figure out, what situations will our personnel be best in,” Rose said. “We’ve got a lot of different combinations that we can play.”
Rose knows the learning curve will take several games, perhaps weeks.
“I hope we can really score early because defensively we’re still trying to progress as a group,” said Rose, whose team is picked to finish second in the MWC behind San Diego State. “I think this could be a real good defensive team because we’re really athletic, we’re long and we can cause a lot of problems. But around the basket, we’re not as good as we need to be yet.”
That’s been the hardest part for Rose, who knows he can’t expect this team to be as good now as last year’s was down the stretch, when the Cougars finished the regular season ranked No. 17.
“It’s a whole new challenge and sometimes you have to control your expectations and frustration level because guys are still learning,” he said. “They’re learning as a group. But we’ll get better as the season goes.”