BYU didn't invite any patsies to the Cougar Classic basketball tournament this year.
The usual plan at these events is for the host team to polish off a group of barely warm bodies on the first night, then play a competent but not spectacular team for the championship.Last year, for instance, BYU warmed up against North Texas, which finished the season 5-25, then beat a good Alabama-Birmingham team in the title game.
This time the Cougars open with Eastern Kentucky, undefeated at 3-0. Last season the Colonels were picked to finish last in the Ohio Valley Conference but ended up challenging for the league title under new coach Mike Pollio.
If BYU gets by that obstacle, it will play the winner of a game between 17th-ranked St. John's and George Mason, which is 2-1, having lost only to East Tennessee State.
BYU, meanwhile, is 3-2 and fresh off a 12-point loss to La Salle in Philadelphia. After five games, the leading scorer for BYU is forward Steve Schreiner, at 16.0. Schreiner, incidentally, made the Cougar Classic all-tournament team last year, scoring 22 against UAB in the title game. Center Shawn Bradley is second in scoring at 15.2, and guard Mark Heslop is next at 13.0.
The Cougars have been outshooting (51-38 percent) and outrebounding (203-181) opponents, but their foes have averaged nearly 12 more shots per game. The reason is turnovers and offensive boards; other teams are getting more second shots, and BYU averages four turnovers more per game. In their two losses, to La Salle and East Tennessee, the Cougs were hurt by three-point shots.
Here's a closer look at the other teams in the Cougar Classic:
Eastern Kentucky - Off to their best start since 1968-69, the Colonels are led by 6-9 center Mike Smith, who averages 14.7 points and 15 rebounds a game. Four other players average in double figures for the Colonels. Forward Toi Bell is scoring 14.0 points per game, forward Aric Sinclair and guard Jamie Ross average 13.0, and guard Chris Brown is at 12.3.
The Colonels shoot 49 percent from the field and average about a dozen three-point attempts per game. Compare this, though: Only four BYU players have attempted a three-point shot in five games; eight different Eastern Kentucky players have fired long-range bombs in just three games.
St. John's - The Redmen are 4-0, after beating No. 20 Georgia Tech Wednesday 73-72 in the Big East-ACC Challenge in Landover, Md. Prior to that, Coach Lou Carnesecca's team had tuned up by shooting 61 percent from the field against creampuffs Monmouth, Central Connecticut and Niagara.
St. John's seems to have everything necessary to cause BYU fits, including a 6-11, 250-pounder in the middle (Robert Werdann), good three-point shooting (44 percent), and big-game experience. If they have a weakness, it's that they haven't found a playmaker to replace the graduated Boo Harvey; both starting guards now are considered to be more shooters than passers.
Forward Malik Sealy leads the Redmen with a 26.3 scoring average. He's followed by Jason Buchanan, 12.7, and Werdann, 12.3.
George Mason - Like La Salle, the Patriots rely on two players to carry their scoring load. Guard Mike Hargett, the designated three-point gunner, averages 20.7 points per game, and 6-foot-7 center Robert Dykes leads the team at 24.3. They are backed by forwards Byron Tucker (14.0) and Mitch Madden (10.0).
Coach Ernie Nestor's team finished second in the Colonial Athletic Association last season and is picked to finish third this year.
BYU's games will be rebroadcast on KBYU-TV (Channel 11) at 10:30 each night. Next week the Cougars play only once, Wednesday at home against Arizona State.