How Good Is BYU's Saarelainen? Aztecs to Find Out

Times Staff Writer

Brigham Young forward Timo Saarelainen has finally had a chance to show basketball fans in the United States what fans in Finland have known for years.

He can play.

It's no fluke that the leading scorer on the Finnish Olympic team for the past four seasons is leading the Western Athletic Conference with a 22.3 scoring average this season.

Stopping Saarelainen will be San Diego State's task tonight when the Aztecs play BYU at 6:35 in the Marriott Center at Provo (KSDO-1130, tape delay).

The Aztecs, 15-4 overall and 6-2 in the WAC, are riding a three-game winning streak but they have not won in six games at Provo. They are tied with BYU and New Mexico for second in the conference.

Saarelainen is second to no one at BYU. But it wasn't that way when he entered BYU after talking to Robert Peterson, a former Mormon missionary who was first Olympic coach in Finland, and Kari Liimo, a former Finnish and BYU star.

The question is: Where has Saarelainen been since he became a Cougar five years ago?

The 6-foot 6-inch forward rode the bench while offensive machines like Danny Ainge, Fred Roberts and Devin Durrant led the Cougars.

In BYU's star system, being a backup to Durrant is about as much fun as it was to play behind Charles White in USC's tailback-oriented football system.

"Fortunately, I got to go back to play for the Finnish team each summer," Saarelainen said. "That was a major factor in my self-improvement and in keeping my confidence up."

Saarelainen's patience was rewarded two years ago when Ladell Andersen replaced Frank Arnold as head coach. Andersen then asked Saarelainen to redshirt because he didn't think he would complement Durrant.

When he returned to BYU this past fall, Andersen told Saarelainen the Cougar offense would be built around him.

Saarelainen's transition from a reserve to a star was not quite as smooth as his jump shot. Early in the fall Saarelainen was divorced, which the usually free-speaking 24-year-old did not want to discuss.

In late November, a couple of weeks after practice officially began, Saarelainen returned to Finland for a week to be with his father, who later died of leukemia.

In BYU's second game of the season, Saarelainen tore cartilage in his left knee when a player from Pacific ran into him while he was releasing a jump shot.

Rest and an extensive weight program enabled Saarelainen to delay a decision on arthroscopic knee surgery until after the season.

"The knee is still not very good," Saarelainen said, "and I can't jump off it that well. But the treatment is working."

Andersen believes Saarelainen is playing to about 90% of his ability. His improvement showed last week when he scored a combined 58 points in victories over Wyoming and Utah including the game-winning shot against the Utes.

There are opposing players who believe Saarelainen wouldn't be as successful if his teammates weren't constantly setting picks and screens to get him free shots.

"When you constantly go to someone," Aztec forward Michael Kennedy said, "they're bound to produce points. I don't think he's that good a one-on-one player."

Kennedy limited Saarelainen to 18 points in the Aztecs' 89-70 victory over BYU on Jan. 12 at the Sports Arena.

If the Aztecs play a man-to-man tonight, Kennedy said he will try to deny Saarelainen the ball or make him go to his left. Kennedy added that SDSU might use a 2-2 zone defense with a chaser on the Finn.

"When you're trying to defense BYU," Andersen said, "you think of stopping Timo first."

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