In a game that lived up to the enormous pregame hype, Brigham Young University and San Diego State University provided a taste of March two months ahead of schedule in Wednesday's showdown of the top two teams in the Mountain West Conference. In front of a raucous crowd in Provo, BYU handed the Aztecs their first loss of the season by a 71-58 final.
Understandably, most of the commentary on the game will be dominated by one James Fredette, better known as Jimmer or "The Jimmer." It was a performance to remember from Fredette, who inhabited a place found primarily in video games for extended stretches. Hand in his face? Off balance? Did not matter to Fredette, who was draining everything he threw at the rim. By the 12-minute mark of the second half, Fredette had already piled up 34 of the Cougars' 46 points.
San Diego State tried shadowing Fredette and denying him the basketball. The Aztecs sent a pair of defenders at Fredette off of ball screens. Nothing worked until Steve Fisher put the superior size of 6'8" forward Billy White on Fredette, who had a tough time getting clean looks at the basket while giving up half a foot. White was quick enough to stay with Fredette and was largely responsible for holding him scoreless over a span of more than nine minutes. Fredette would not be denied forever, of course, and he finished off the game and San Diego State by scoring nine points--seven at the free throw line--in the last three and a half minutes.
Certainly, BYU needed every one of Fredette's 43 points on a night where partner-in-crime Jackson Emery (1-of-7 from the field) and the rest of the team's role players were quiet offensively. Other than Fredette and Brandon Davies, who scored 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting, the other Cougars combined for just 14 points on 5-of-24 from the field.
But in some respects, the attention on Fredette overshadowed the most impressive aspect of the game: BYU's lockdown defense. The Aztecs were held to 0.88 points per possession and shot a dismal 36.1 percent from the field. Just twice this season has San Diego State managed fewer than 0.9 points per trip down the floor--an anomalous 51-45 win over defensive-minded Cal Poly and a 55-49 victory against UNLV, which boasts the nation's 10th-best adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Cougars have won more with their potent offense than with defense this season, ranking 39th in the league in adjusted defensive efficiency. At key moments, however, BYU has stepped up. Previously, Arizona suffered its worst offensive outing of the season at the Marriott Center. This time around, the Cougars used a 2-3 zone defense to flummox the Aztecs in the second half, holding them to a single field goal over a nine-minute stretch where their hopes of coming back faded badly.
San Diego State figures to see a steady diet of zone come March. While the Aztecs can make teams pay with second chances--the relentless Kawhi Leonard alone had nine offensive rebounds, and the team finished with 16--their lack of outside shooting is an Achilles' heel. D.J. Gay and reserve specialist James Rahon are the lone players on the roster averaging at least a three per game. Combine that with strong rotations from an active BYU team and the result was 5-of-20 bricklaying beyond the arc. Gay was a particular culprit, missing all five of his threes and finishing 0-of-7 from the field.
Fisher will have the opportunity to make adjustments before the return match February 26 in San Diego. (The teams could meet a third time in the Mountain West Conference tournament.) At home, the Aztecs won't have to worry about Fredette sending the crowd into a frenzy or the effect of altitude, which forced Fisher to manage his timeouts for rest and momentum as much as strategy. Based on Ken Pomeroy's ratings, San Diego State will be a solid favorite at home, though his projection understated Wednesday's final margin.
The biggest positive the Aztecs can take from their first loss of the season was the performance of star forward Leonard, who proved too athletic for the Cougars frontline. Shaking off flu-like symptoms that forced him to receive an IV before the game, Leonard pulled down 15 rebounds and scored a team-high 22 points, though he was also responsible for seven of San Diego State's 13 turnovers.
On an ordinary night, Leonard's performance would have been a big story, but Fredette's performance was anything but ordinary. As he keeps piling up 40-plus-point outings--and this is the third time in his last four games that he has surpassed 40--Fredette has not only played his way near or to the top of the player of the year discussion, he's also forcing NBA scouts to think long and hard about his professional future. The snap reviews on Wednesday were unanimously positive.
John Hollinger reported that NBA scouts in Utah were impressed, while one executive in attendance told Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski, "Easier to teach 'D' than to drop 25 foot bombs in people's face. Steph (Curry) didn't defend at Davidson either."
To me, Curry's sophomore season--when he was the driving force behind Davidson reaching the Elite Eight before losing to eventual national champion Kansas by two points--is the closest analogue to Fredette's performance. He is not exactly a one-man show, as Davies and Emery are also capable of creating their own offense, but everything BYU does starts with Fredette--who ranks ninth in the country in possession usage and 12th in the percentage of his team's shots taken while on the floor. Impressively, Fredette has managed to take on that heavy load while remaining efficient as a scorer. In fact, his efficiency only seems to be improving. In conference games, Fredette's True Shooting Percentage is an incredible 67.6 percent.
Because Fredette is two years older than Curry was then, his upside is lower. Still, with each performance like this, especially against elite competition, Fredette overcomes more of the questions about whether his game can translate to the next level.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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