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Jimmer Fredette, BYU Calling to Mind Larry Bird, Indiana State

Feb 26, 2011 – 7:15 PM
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Tom Krasovic

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SAN DIEGO -- I hope Larry Bird was watching Saturday when Jimmer Fredette and Brigham Young carved up highly ranked San Diego State for the second time this year.

For Larry Legend, it was a chance to relive his college days, the Jimmer doing for Brigham Young what Bird used to do for Indiana State.

Fredette is the nation's leading scorer largely because of his silky, rapid jumpshot that extends to some 30 feet, which creates ample space for teammates to get their favorite shots

Scores of gifted gunners, both present and past, open up the chessboard for their teammates, but rare are those who can punish the defense with the pass.

Saturday, Fredette showed a Birdlike ability to find the open man. The result was a steady hailstorm of 3-pointers that carried BYU to the victory, 80-67, leaving the No. 7 Cougars (27-2, 13-1) atop the Mountain West Conference and No. 6 San Diego State (27-2, 12-2) looking up.

With a CBS national audience watching, the common perception that Fredette is defined by his scoring was reshaped by passes through and over double teams, fast break lobs and creative bounce passes. Fredette had nine assists, one shy of his personal best, despite drawing athletic defenders such as 6-foot-8 Billy White and 6-foot-7 Kawhi Leonard

"He is as creative as any player I've played with as a player in college, or played against, or coached," said BYU coach Dave Rose, who was a teammate of Clyde Drexler's on the University of Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma teams.

Let's be clear here: the 6-foot-2 Jimmer has no chance of being as good the 6-foot-9 Bird was in the NBA. He's not quick enough to dominate NBA guards.

But as Fredette and BYU evolve, I'm seeing a stylistic resemblance to Bird, the Indiana State Sycamores and 1979. Every player knows his role. No one begrudges the star his spotlight. Role players do the grunt work. And when a play needs to be made, the star makes it. One difference: Long shots now count for three points, which was bad news for San Diego State. BYU made 14 of 24 3-pointers for 42 of its 80 points.

The victory, which could give BYU the inside track to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, actually traced to the 43 points that Fredette scored in BYU's victory over SDSU last month in Provo. Double-teaming Fredette more this time, the Aztecs had to hope that he couldn't pass the ball well. The result: SDSU was Jimmered again, but more so by Fredette's court vision and anticipation skills than his jumper. Fredette scored 25 points, a game high, but he set up teammates such as Charles Abouo (18 points, 4-for-5 on 3s) and Noah Hartsock (15 points, 3-for-4 on 3s).

"You see defenses just collapse as he penetrates, and his court vision has gotten better," said Aztecs point guard D.J. Gay. "He is finding the open man."

Rose said that when Fredette was a freshman, the coaches viewed him more as an off-guard than a playmaker. Together, they're finding out that there's still helium in their games, both collectively and within Jimmer himself.

"You realize that he's just one of those players, when he has the ball in his hand, that he can make plays, and he can create plays for himself," Rose said. "I think what he's really done this year is become a lot more patient and really found ways to create shots for his teammates."

Rose's favorite play was Fredette's 30-foot pass that Abouo converted for three points, part of a 42-point second half for BYU, which led 38-35 at intermission. Like a quarterback who finds the third or fourth receiver, Fredette, after drawing two defenders, saw SDSU rotate to two of his teammates, then located Abouo, a 6-foot-5 junior from Ivory Coast.

Of course, the shot still has to be made. On this afternoon, Fredette's teammates sank 10-for-16 3s. In the win over SDSU at Provo, Fredette scored all but 28 of BYU's points. Saturday, his friends scored 55. Each time, the margin was 13 points, an impressive display of offensive versatility, this time against an Aztecs defense that ranked seventh nationally in scoring and 13th in field goal percentage.

"I've been telling everybody, all of the media, that it's not just me -- it's our team," said Fredette, whose backcourt mate Jackson Emery stifled Gay. "I keep telling them that if they are going to double-team me, I'm going to try to get it to my teammates, and they are going to make shots. ... If they don't double-team me, then it's my time to be aggressive and score the basketball until they have to. That's what makes our team good."

When Bird and Indiana State got rolling in March 1979, they didn't lose until the NCAA championship game against Magic Johnson and Michigan State. BYU likely will need to develop its low-post game if it's to reach Houston for the Final Four, but there don't appear to be any great teams out there.

"I told our team: BYU is Final Four good," said Aztecs coach Steve Fisher. "And I don't know that our guys like to hear that. And then I said: We are, too. Today, they were the better team. And they were. No excuses."

If there was a downer for the Cougars, it's that they're now unlikely to be an underdog unless they reach Houston.

Oddsmakers favored SDSU by 3.5 points, a strange, but happy experience for the Cougars, whose postgame celebration in the locker room let Rose know that this was an extra special victory. Part of it was SDSU's 18-game winning streak at Viejas Arena, which has never been louder than it was for the 11 a.m. tipoff. Flu had weakened the Cougars, and SDSU was the more-rested team, but BYU notched its third consecutive sweep of the Aztecs in the regular season and by never surrendering the lead after Fredette's layup made it 4-2, kept the crowd under wraps.

"We were just really, really excited to win this game," Fredette said.
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