BYU's basketball team may be better than a lot of people expected.
And Shawn Bradley may be great sooner than people expected.In a game the Cougars might have won but for a rash of first-half turnovers, BYU lost to East Tennessee State 83-80 Wednesday night before a crowd of 15,000 in the Marriott Center. It was a first-round game in the preseason National Invitation Tournament, and East Tennessee's win gives them the dubious privilege of playing second-ranked Arizona, which walloped Austin Peay 122-80, Friday in Tucson.
The oddsmakers posted BYU as a five-point favorite in this game, which shows the kind of expectations the nation has of Bradley. Why else favor a team with one returning senior over a team that was 27-7 last year and returns its eight top players?
Bradley didn't disappoint, however, scoring 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting, pulling down 14 rebounds and blocking five shots while playing against a 6-11 senior center, Greg Dennis, who has been touted as an All-America candidate. Trying to shoot over the 7-foot-6 Bradley, Dennis missed all eight of his field-goal attempts in the first half and hit four of 16 for the game. After averaging 19.7 last season, he scored eight.
"Our big kid (Dennis) had perhaps the poorest game of his career," East Tennessee Coach Alan LeForce said. "I don't know if he was intimidated by the Bradley kid or what."
Here's a hint, coach: It wasn't "what."
LeForce, predicting that Bradley would someday be a great player, said: "He's already a good basketball player, and he's just a colt."
BYU shot better (54.9 percent to 45.6) and outrebounded (41-25) the Buccaneers, but what ultimately made the difference was East Tennessee's quickness, which caused 20 Cougar turnovers. BYU guard Nathan Call, who was dogged all night by 5-7 point guard Keith "Mister" Jennings, said there was a big difference between practicing against his teammates and playing against someone as quick as Jennings.
On the Cougars' first trip downcourt, Jennings pestered Call into throwing a bad pass that resulted in a Buc steal and dunk. On the next trip downcourt, Jennings stole the ball from Call and fed it to Calvin Talford for a layup. Call committed six turnovers in the first half, and most of them were Jennings' doing.
"I thought our point guard played as well as he could play," LeForce said. "He was the difference."
It would have been easy for an inexperienced team like the Cougars to fold after the shaky start, but they declined. They even built a 12-7 lead by taking advantage of their biggest asset - size. The Cougars led for much of the first half, using a bruising inside game on both ends of the court and an effective man-to-man defense to stay close.
"BYU's a young basketball team but they're huge and they're physical," LeForce said. "We're not used to playing that rugged. They don't play that way where we come from."
But when the Cougars' muscle - and Bradley's wingspan - kept the Bucs from scoring inside, the team that led the nation in three-point attempts last season took it outside. When BYU, leading 29-27, switched to a zone defense late in the first half, East Tennessee hit three 3-pointersin less than two minutes to take a 36-33 lead and convince BYU to switch back to man-to-man.
For the game, the Bucs put up 28 three-pointers and made 13.
In the second half, East Tennessee kept trying to pull away and BYU doggedly refused to fold. The Bucs led by as much as nine points, but the Cougars got within one point with less than a minute to play. With the game clock winding down, BYU was forced to foul Jennings, and the senior hit two free throws to make it 83-80.
"That's not really the guy we wanted to foul," BYU Coach Roger Reid said, "but they wouldn't give the ball to the guy we wanted."
BYU had the ball and 13 seconds left, and got Mark Heslop open for a three-pointer from the top of the key. "When I let it go I was ready for overtime," Heslop said. "I'd like to shoot it again, because I think I'd drill it."
It missed, however, and the buzzer sounded as players scrambled for control of the ball in front of the basket.
Heslop ended up with 16 points, and senior Steve Schreiner finished with 20 and eight rebounds. Jennings led the Bucs with 26 points, Alvin West scored 19, and Major Geer and Rodney English had 12 and 10, respectively.
"The difference in this ball game was they had the veterans when it came down to the wire," Reid said. Then he smiled, like a man visualizing his team 10 games from now - or maybe a couple of seasons from now? - and liking the picture. "BYU is going to be OK as time goes on. We'll be fine."