Last week BYU recorded an 89-77 win on the road against UNLV. It was the kind of victory that changes people's perceptions about a team -- at 17-1 the Cougars have moved up to No. 10 in ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll.
But what's funny is that the picture presented by BYU and its star player, Jimmer Fredette, is one of almost eerie continuity stretching back to last season. Dave Rose's team is attracting new notice by doing the same old things they've done for a while: making shots and playing D.
With a road win against the Rebels safely tucked in their pocket, the Cougars are highly likely to end the regular season with a gaudy won-loss record. And, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, the Mountain West race is shaping up to be a really interesting battle between San Diego State and BYU. (Take a moment to thank the MWC for having a true round-robin conference schedule. Whichever team emerges as the winner will be a legitimate champion.) Here at Poll Position I've already looked at the Aztecs. Now it's time to consider the team from Provo.
Fredette is both prolific and efficient -- just like last year.
Jimmer Fredette is the kind of player that pretty much everyone can agree on. Whether you traffic in old-school metrics like points per game (last night's 47-point outburst at Utah pushed Fredette's average up to 26.1, tops in the nation) or prefer more descriptive -- some might say accurate -- stats (he's making 54 percent of his twos and 39 percent of his threes), the 6-2 senior from Glens Falls, New York, is eminently worthy of our attention. And attention is something Fredette is receiving plenty of after scoring 108 points over the past seven days.
Of course BYU fans know that Fredette's been Fredette-like for a long time now. This year he's taking 34 percent of the Cougars' shots while he's on the floor. That's one of the highest workloads in the country, but it's not that much different from the shot percentage he recorded last year (32). Both Fredette's importance to this offense (vital) and his efficiency (extremely high) have stayed more or less exactly the same from year to year. Fredette's an outstanding player who's been outstanding for a long time.
BYU is more than Jimmer Fredette -- just like last year.
One thing that's changed in Provo since last year is that Jonathan Tavernari is no longer around to function as a co-featured scorer alongside Fredette. Nevertheless, here are the Cougars, 17-1 (the loss was to UCLA on a semi-neutral floor in Anaheim) and ranked in the top 10. How have they done it?
Don't forget the defense. Fredette garners all the headlines, and any team that scores this effectively while playing at a pace as fast as BYU's will give the impression that it's merely outscoring teams. In fact the Cougars play excellent D, limiting foes to 31 percent shooting beyond the arc and 44 percent accuracy inside it. Rose's team takes the by-committee approach on the defensive glass, and Noah Hartsock blocks more shots than you'd expect from someone listed at 6-8. Rest assured, BYU can win ugly if they have to.
The Cougars and the Mountain West will face skeptics in March -- because of last year.
With both BYU and San Diego State currently ranked in the top 10 nationally, times are good for the Mountain West. One could even ask whether the conference is producing more quality teams than the venerable ACC, which has No. 1 Duke but no other ranked teams.
Then again, with all due respect to the Mountain West, we've been here before. Through January, into February, and even in early March, the MWC typically has multiple teams that look really strong according to all the metrics I trust most. And then....
Allow me to repeat a paragraph from my previous piece on San Diego State:
Since 2000 the conference has sent no fewer than 26 teams to the Big Dance. Of that number just two -- Utah in 2005 and UNLV in 2007 -- reached the Sweet 16 (where both lost). The Mountain West's winning percentage in the tournament this century stands at a not very intimidating .257.
Last March both the Aztecs and, especially, the Cougars looked ready to make some serious noise in the NCAA tournament. So too did New Mexico and UNLV. All four teams were gone by the end of the tournament's first weekend. People often ask me if the stats I use "really" work in terms of predicting NCAA tournament success. My response the past couple years has become: "Absolutely -- except for Wisconsin and the Mountain West."
One good March run by the likes of BYU could change that perception. The Cougars will arrive at the tournament with one of the best players in the country and, almost certainly, an ostentatiously small number of losses. Just like last year. It's up to Fredette and company to take the next step.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John also talks Beehive State hoops on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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