College Basketball Nation: Noah Hartsock

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The NCAA tournament has arrived at the KFC Yum! Center, and this pod definitely comes Kentucky-fried for your enjoyment.

Murray State begins the day by playing within its state's borders, and No. 1 seed Kentucky and No. 16 seed Western Kentucky will renew their intermittent rivalry in the evening. But some outsiders will seek to crash this Commonwealth celebration.

Let's take a look at the afternoon games on tap here Thursday:

No. 6 seed Murray State (30-1) vs. No. 11 seed Colorado State (19-13), 12:15 p.m. ET

What to watch: Is Murray State for real? That has been a season-long question, as the Racers won their first 23 games and broke into the top 10 for the first time in school history. They ended the season ranked ninth in the coaches' poll but received a No. 6 seed because of a soft schedule. But they drew a favorable opening matchup in Colorado State, a guard-oriented team that doesn't have a player over 6-foot-6. The Rams love any open shot and rank sixth nationally in 3-point field goal percentage.

Who to watch: Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan is one of the top players in the country, averaging 19.2 points and shooting 47 percent from 3-point range. Colorado State coach Tim Miles admiringly described Canaan as a "pain in the butt" and went so far as to compare him to Jimmer Fredette. If the Racers make a run in this tournament, Canaan could be one of the breakout stars of March.

Why to watch: Any team that goes 30-1 must be doing something right, and Murray State can cause enough matchup problems to make a run to the Sweet 16. The Ohio Valley Conference champ has won a game in each of the last two NCAA tournaments. Colorado State is looking for its first NCAA win since 1989, and the highly entertaining Miles will churn out some memorable sound bites if it happens.

What they're saying: "I think we're kind of used to this situation. We've kind of been looked at as an underdog all year long. I know that gym's probably not going to be in our favor [Thursday]. Our conference tournament kind of prepared us for that a little bit. So we're used to this kind of atmosphere. We're going to try not to let that stuff get to us and just concentrate on our game plan and the way we've got to play to win." -- Colorado State guard Wes Eikmeier.

"I think Murray's always been on the map. They have a great winning tradition. But I just think with this year that it just opened up some more eyes. More people kind of went out of their way to see where Murray State was, who these guys were, what are they doing, how do they represent themselves. So I think it was just a matter of us doing a little bit extra for the program." -- Murray State guard Donte Poole.

Of note: Poole signed with Colorado State out of high school and even attended summer school there in 2007. ... The Racers are one of just five teams to enter the NCAA tournament with only one loss but not earn a No. 1 seed. The best showing by any of those previous teams was Texas Tech's Sweet 16 run in 1996. ... Miles has often worn a Smarty Jones hat in honor of the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner to remind his teams of their underdog possibilities. "And just by chance, we end up in Louisville," he said. "I thought that was pretty cool karma."

No. 3 seed Marquette (25-7) vs. No. 14 seed BYU (26-8), approximately 2:45 p.m. ET

What to watch: Marquette crashed the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed a year ago and now looms as a potential Final Four threat in the West Region. The Golden Eagles love to get out in transition, and BYU just beat one of the fastest teams in the country while completing a stunning comeback against Iona in Dayton. Can BYU follow VCU's unconventional path from a year ago?

Who to watch: Marquette's 1-2 punch of Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Johnson-Odom can beat you from 3-point range or off the bounce, while Big East player of the year Crowder is a 6-6 matchup nightmare who can do a little of everything. Both are seniors who won't be easily rattled.

Why to watch: BYU has already turned in possibly one of the most entertaining games of this year's tournament, and the Cougars have the fascinating redemption saga of forward Brandon Davies. Marquette matches the high energy of its coach, Buzz Williams, and is almost never boring.

What they're saying: "When I first got in here, I smelled the chicken being cooked. So that reminded me of the last time we were here." -- Marquette's Crowder, recalling his team's last appearance at the KFC Yum! Center, when the Golden Eagles blew an 18-point lead in the final six minutes during a loss last year to Louisville.

"A lot of confidence comes from coming from behind and winning, especially in the NCAA tournament. There's a lot of new emotions and adrenaline that comes into play when you're in this tournament. It gives us a lot of confidence to know that we can play and battle back from a pretty big deficit." -- BYU forward Brock Zylstra.

Of note: Marquette typically wins the fast-break battle, but it gave up a season-high 35 transition points in its loss to Louisville in the Big East tournament last week. ... The last time the Golden Eagles were a No. 3 seed, they made the Final Four in 2003 behind Dwyane Wade. ... With Tuesday's victory, BYU has won NCAA tournament games in three straight years for the first time in school history. ... The Cougars spent Tuesday night in Dayton and made the short bus ride to Louisville on Wednesday, arriving about 2:30 p.m. ... BYU coach Dave Rose said forward Noah Hartsock, who has been battling knee and ankle problems, was "pretty sore" after the Iona game, but he expected Hartsock to be ready to play Thursday.

DAYTON, Ohio -- We were all thrilled and confused Tuesday night.

What had we just witnessed?

The evening’s matchups offered surprises that caused grown men to speak in fragments at the University of Dayton Arena.

“I just don’t … I mean … I’ve never …”

At that point, there was nothing to say.

The gym’s floor had been transformed from the site of the postseason’s afterthought to a canvas for college basketball history.

In this season’s First Four -- still fighting for legitimacy among college basketball fans -- the NCAA tournament commenced with the greatest comeback in the final five minutes of a game. Western Kentucky recovered from a 16-point deficit to secure a 59-58 victory over Mississippi Valley State.

And just a few hours later, BYU launched the greatest comeback in NCAA tournament history when it recovered from 25-point hole against Iona and sealed a 78-72 win.

“What an exciting game,” said BYU head coach Dave Rose.

That would qualify as an understatement. After BYU’s victory, fans, scribes, coaches and players spent a few minutes meandering around the building in a stupor, intoxicated by the liquor called March Madness.

President Obama and British prime minister David Cameron sat courtside for the Hilltoppers’ victory over the Delta Devils. And by the end of night, the president’s appearance had become a sidebar to the explosive start of America’s favorite tournament.

As Western Kentucky stormed back, the commander in chief formed a “T” with his hands and mouthed the word “timeout.” He’d gotten caught up in the craze, too.

Obama, however, missed the best game. He left immediately after the conclusion of Western Kentucky’s win over MVSU, in which it rallied from 16 down in the final five minutes.

[+] EnlargeBYU's Brock Zylstra
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBrock Zylstra and BYU celebrated an NCAA-record 25-point come-from-behind victory against Iona.
In the nightcap, Iona scored 55 points in the first 15 minutes and 26 seconds of its meeting with BYU. And then the Cougars tortured the Gaels for the remaining 24-plus minutes, nibbling at that lead until the final minutes.

Iona scored 55 points and shot 69 percent from the field and 71 percent on 3-pointers in the first 15:26 of the game. But in the final 24:34, the Gaels scored 17 points, shot 20 percent from the field and made just 1 of 18 3-pointers. They also turned it over 15 times during that stretch.

At one point, BYU went on a 17-0 run and held Iona scoreless for more than nine minutes. By the time Noah Hartsock (23 points) nailed a 3-pointer with 2:28 on the game clock,the Cougars had a 71-70 lead. By the end of the night, the Cougars had authored a 31-point swing and surpassed Duke’s 22-point comeback against Maryland in the 2001 Final Four.

“I started looking around and didn’t see [Obama]. But I’m sure he had some important things to take care of,” Hartsock said. “But it was just great just being here at the game and just grateful we could man together and get a win.”

This is why America falls for this event every year. This is why President Obama brought Cameron to Dayton.

For the possibilities presented by the NCAA tournament.

There aren’t any ridiculous brackets. Amazing things happen in March.

Iona had locked up a victory. The Gaels looked like UNLV from the early ’90s. Then they ran into a crafty zone, and turned into a team that didn’t know how to score.

“We started getting our hands on loose balls and tipping it,” Hartsock said. “We were just trying to be active.”

Iona’s collapse jacked up part of my bracket. I predicted two Gaels victories.

But I wasn’t concerned.

I’d just watched two of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history. In Dayton. With the President of the United States in the crowd for one of them.

Welcome to March.

That was the message that Western Kentucky and BYU sent during the first two games of the First Four.

And if that was the appetizer, I can’t wait for the main course later in the week.

Rapid Reaction: BYU 78, Iona 72

March, 14, 2012

DAYTON, Ohio -- Reaction from BYU's 78-72 win over Iona.

Overview: The scouting report on Iona was simple. The Gaels can run with anyone (they have the top scoring offense in the country), but they can’t guard anyone.

Both proved to be true in their loss to BYU on Tuesday in the First Four matchup at University of Dayton Arena.

With 4:34 to go in the first half, the Gaels held a 55-31 lead.

Get out your calculators for this one.

That’s a 24-point margin, right? Well, for the next 16 minutes and 31 seconds, the Gaels recorded just seven points.

Huh? How does a team score 55 points in the first 15:24 of the game and then register seven during the next 16:31?

They couldn’t score against BYU’s zone. The Cougars forced Iona to slow down and rely on sets instead of the up-tempo game that had carried the Gaels to that crazy start. Iona was perplexed as BYU kept cutting into its lead.

As Iona’s offense stalled (going scoreless for more than nine minutes), BYU mounted a comeback that resulted in a 71-70 lead for the Cougars on a Noah Hartsock 3-pointer with 2:28 to play. Brandon Davies hit a pair of late free throws, and a Brock Zylstra three-point play with 23 seconds to go gave BYU a 76-70 lead. More late free throws sealed the win for the Cougars.

It was the biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history. That followed the greatest comeback in the last five minutes during Western Kentucky's late push against MVSU in the first game.

The largest deficit of the game was 25 points, making this a 31-point turnaround for BYU. Welcome to March.

Key Player: Davies had 18 points, and Hartsock scored 23. Both were crucial in the win.

Key Stats: Iona scored 55 points and shot 69 percent from the field and 71 percent on 3-pointers in the first 15:26 of the game. But in the final 24:34 of the game, the Gaels scored 17 points, shot 20 percent from the field and made just 1 of 18 3-point attempts.

Misc.: Wow. Again. I know a lot of folks have knocked the First Four setup, but we were treated to a pair of thrilling finishes in Dayton. And that was only Day 1. ... How on earth did that happen? How did Iona blow that lead? I’ve never witnessed that kind of collapse in person.

Games to watch before the weekend

December, 26, 2011
Five weekday games we'll be keeping an eye on:


No. 12 Georgetown at No. 4 Louisville (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET)

What’s at stake for the Hoyas: Georgetown has been the surprise Big East team in nonconference play. John Thompson III has found a nice blend with role players elevating themselves into starring roles. Georgetown has already proven it can win on the road, as evidenced by its victory at Alabama. But winning at the raucous KFC Yum! Center is another matter.

What’s at stake for the Cardinals: Louisville has one more major nonconference test at Kentucky on Saturday. That game matters more in the state. But getting off to a good start in the Big East is just as important for this team.

No. 15 Indiana at No. 17 Michigan State (7:30 p.m. ET):

What’s at stake for the Hoosiers: Nothing can be taken away from what Indiana has earned in the nonconference. The Hoosiers have a home win against Kentucky and a road win at NC State to their credit. IU also won on a neutral court against Notre Dame. The latter two are NIT teams at best. Still, Indiana has improved dramatically and is proving to be a tough out. Stealing a road win at MSU would send a clear message to the rest of the Big Ten that the Hoosiers have arrived. A Big Ten home opener against Ohio State on Saturday looms large after this game.

What’s at stake for the Spartans: Michigan State has rebounded quite well since opening the season with losses to North Carolina and Duke. The Spartans took out Florida State at home and won at Gonzaga and have benefited from steadier guard play and improved frontcourt production. Now the Spartans must hit the ground running in Big Ten play and squash out the upstart Hoosiers at home.

No. 14 Mississippi State vs. No. 7 Baylor (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET in Dallas)

What’s at stake for the Bulldogs: Mississippi State can take a major step forward in becoming a legitimate contender in the SEC with a neutral-court win over Baylor. In terms of overall talent, the Bears will be the closest match to Kentucky the Bulldogs will face over the next two months. Mississippi State can match Baylor at each position, even off the bench. A win would put the Bulldogs into top-10 range heading into the new year.

What’s at stake for the Bears: Baylor has dismissed each challenger it has faced so far this season, winning on the road at Northwestern and BYU and beating Saint Mary’s and West Virginia in Las Vegas and San Diego State at home. Mississippi State poses the final test for the Bears before Big 12 play begins, and it will be the toughest they have faced yet.


Vanderbilt at No. 13 Marquette (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)

What’s at stake for the Commodores: Festus Ezeli is back for Vanderbilt, free from any eligibility or injury issues. That means the Commodores have no more excuses -- except that this is one of the toughest venues to get a win. Vandy nearly closed out a road win at Louisville earlier this month. If the Commodores can take down Marquette in Milwaukee, it will cancel out their two losses to Xavier and Louisville.

What’s at stake for the Golden Eagles: Marquette was pushed in New York by Washington and won. The Golden Eagles had to survive a scare from Norfolk State and prevailed. Marquette held off Wisconsin in Madison. But then the Golden Eagles couldn’t handle the strong guards and rebounding of LSU in Baton Rouge in a Dec. 19 loss. They can find their stride again heading into Big East play with a strong performance against Vandy.

BYU at Saint Mary’s (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET):

What’s at stake for the Cougars: BYU opens West Coast Conference play in what is easily one of the two toughest venues in the league. BYU can send a strong message to the rest of the WCC that the Cougars have moved into the conference to win it. This team is getting quite comfortable with UCLA transfer Matt Carlino having emerged as a do-everything guard since becoming eligible.

What’s at stake for the Gaels: Saint Mary’s has to let BYU know it can protect its home court and be Gonzaga’s top challenger in the league this season. But to do that SMC will have to do a solid job on the backboard to keep players such as Brandon Davies and Noah Hartsock off the boards. Saint Mary’s can’t afford to start the title chase making up ground after a losing a home game to one of its conference's main contenders.

BYU loses sixth man for Baylor game

December, 16, 2011
BYU forward Stephen Rogers will miss Saturday's big game against Baylor and between two to four weeks while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Rogers, a versatile 6-foot-8 player off the bench for the Cougars, averages 9.9 points and is a top outside shooter. His loss could mean more time for freshman Damarcus Harrison, who previously averaged 11.1 minutes per game.

BYU is 8-2 and presents a formidable challenge at home against undefeated Baylor, with the Marriott Center sold out for the first time this season.

The Cougars do have UCLA transfer guard Matt Carlino eligible for the first time while Baylor adds another player as well with Cal transfer guard Gary Franklin now eligible as well.

BYU forward Noah Hartsock, one of the players to watch along with Brandon Davies against the Bears' strong frontcourt, told the Deseret News that Carlino's addition should help.
"That's pretty awesome for us. He's really excited," Hartsock said. "He's a great player. He can really get up and down the court. It's going to take some time for him to get into the system.

"It's a tough game, especially against the sixth-ranked team in the nation as his first game. But he's a good player and he's going to make some good contributions for us this year. He's been really patient and he's worked hard. He's done a great job preparing and keeping himself in shape for this season."

BYU reverting to run-and-gun style

July, 18, 2011
The up-and-down style of play that BYU coach Dave Rose had used over the years got very much Jimmer Fredette-centric this past season, as the future lottery pick was able to shoot his way to national player of the year honors and lead the Cougars to the Sweet 16.

With Fredette gone, that creates opportunities for players to get more touches, and Rose will have to make some adjustments. He'll start by dusting off some of what worked for BYU long before handing off the reins of the offense to Fredette.

According to what Cougars forward Noah Hartsock told the Examiner-Enterprise, the style of play at BYU should be an attractive one to play within.
"When I talked to Coach [Dave] Rose, we talked a lot about how we’re getting back in the old system," Hartsock said earlier this week. "We're going to work back into a run-and-gun type of play and push the ball up the court."


Although Hartsock said he understood the special talent Fredette brought to the program, he's looking forward to the old-new system that "will create a lot of shots for everybody up the floor. We'll look to shot the first open shot or work it down to the post and get it inside. I think it suits me really well."

Hartsock, who averaged 8.6 points last season, is one of two returning seniors who will help BYU build itself back up after losing Fredette. The Cougars expect to get forward Brandon Davies back after his honor code suspension, and will also welcome in new pieces to the puzzle in freshman DeMarcus Harrison and UCLA transfer Matt Carlino, guards who should help push the pace.

So without Fredette, BYU will undoubtedly have to tweak its offense. Having players sold on the changes and excited about implementing them is an early positive sign for the Cougars that life after Jimmer can come with a smooth transition.

BYU big man says goodbye at banquet

April, 14, 2011
BYU junior James Anderson will not return to the program next season, he announced Wednesday night at the team's awards banquet.

The Cougars lose the 6-foot-10 post presence after Anderson, who is expected to graduate in the summer, decided to pursue job opportunities rather than play on a team coming off a Sweet 16 appearance.

"I know it's a little unexpected," Anderson said, according to the Deseret News. "I'm grateful for my time here."

Anderson averaged 7.6 minutes and 1.1 points, making key contributions to this year's team. He came up with five blocks in the win against San Diego State at home in January. And when leading rebounder Brandon Davies was suspended due to an honor code violation, Anderson started the following game and played important minutes afterward.

Anderson, who was honored along with the team's seniors, served a two-year mission and also redshirted as a freshman before three seasons of action.

BYU loses its tallest player at a time when the status of Davies for next season remains unclear. The Cougars are expected to return forwards Noah Hartsock, Stephen Rogers and Chris Collinsworth, who underwent season-ending knee surgery.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, BYU could also gain depth from returning missionaries.
Lone Peak High’s 6-10 Nate Austin and Orem High’s 6-10 Ian Harward will return from missions in Texas and will help the team inside, provided they are not asked to redshirt.

Every bit of depth will help while Davies does not appear on the team's official roster. The program hopes that the school will ultimately reinstate him after the honor code violation prevented him from playing in the postseason.

There was one sign that Davies remains highly regarded in the program. At the banquet, it was announced he would receive the award for "Best Conditioned Post Player."

Florida's fresh legs finish off BYU

March, 25, 2011

NEW ORLEANS -- Florida debated how early to take the last shot of regulation. The differential between the shot clock and the game clock was eight seconds.

The Gators’ coaching staff was adamant that they didn’t want BYU’s Jimmer Fredette to take the last shot.

So when Kenny Boynton lofted a 3-pointer in front of the UF bench with 24 seconds remaining, the staff knew that if it didn’t go in, Florida could be in trouble.

The ball went long. But BYU’s Noah Hartsock and Kyle Collinsworth were confused as to who would chase it down. So no one did. Instead, Florida’s Erving Walker raced to the loose rebound on the opposite side from where Boynton lofted the shot.

“It was so big because they could have easily gone the other way,’’ Boynton said. “Fredette is so good at drawing fouls and taking a last shot. It would have been game over for us. That was a big rebound.”

Chandler Parsons eventually took the game’s last shot of regulation. He missed, but the Gators had done what they had to do -- ensure BYU and Fredette didn’t have the last shot to win the game.

“We had a chance, we got a stop, but we had a chance to get a rebound and they got the offensive rebound and put it out,’’ Fredette said. “And you never know what could have happened if we got that rebound. But they definitely had fresh legs and they were ready to go in that overtime.’’

[+] EnlargeJimmer Fredette
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireFlorida's defense kept Jimmer Fredette to 11-of-29 shooting and 3-of-15 on 3-pointers.
Florida was rejuvenated in the extra five minutes. BYU was gassed. And the Gators won 83-74 in overtime to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since winning consecutive national championships in 2006 and ’07.

And if the Gators win Saturday here at New Orleans Arena, they might point back to Walker’s hustle play as the reason, or at least an example of the difference between this Gators team and the previous three.

“I was actually kind of lucky because I was supposed to get back after Kenny’s shot, but I just hung around a little bit and I seen the ball go to the corner and I just made a hustle play,’’ Walker said. “I was able to come up with the ball.’’

Hartsock said he saw the ball come off but didn’t react.

“We had stopped them from making a shot, but then we had to play [defense for 14 more seconds]. It was heartbreaking,’’ Hartsock said. “The quick guard picked it up.’’

Said BYU’s Jackson Emery, “That was real big; he shot it early and they were in the position we wanted, but it was tough because we thought we’d have a second chance. It was a big play, and they made winning plays.’’

This Florida team has made a habit of that this season, beating Tennessee twice in close affairs, as well as winning at Georgia and against Kentucky and Vanderbilt on final possessions or within the final few.

“We’ve found ways to make plays,’’ UF coach Billy Donovan said. “There’s an understanding with this group of how much more those things impact winning. I’m not sure they had a clue [earlier]. It took them getting their heart broken a lot to know they had to be more alert and make those plays.’’

Florida’s defense on Fredette wasn’t perfect but it flustered him enough, with the Gators rushing two players at him and running over screens with a big to force him to drive. Fredette’s passing helped the Cougars tie things up tie at the half, and he found the seams to get to the basket by driving.

But Fredette still had to go high volume with 29 shots to score 32 points, making just three of a career-high 15 3-point attempts. His teammates were too 3-happy as well, going 10-of-37 as a team.

The Gators had more offensive balance, with four double-figure scorers to BYU’s one, but the rebounding with Alex Tyus (17 rebounds, 19 points) and Walker (six rebounds), one of the shortest players on the court, proved to be decisive.

“It was a great hustle play,’’ Tyus said of Walker’s rebound.

“We didn’t give them a chance to win it,’’ Parsons said.

And now seniors like Tyus and Parsons are one game away from reaching the Final Four and climbing out from under the shadows of the consecutive titles.

The Gators missed the NCAAs for two consecutive seasons. There were unexpected defections to the pros, such as Marreese Speights and Nick Calathes, and a team that didn’t know how to win big. Yet here they are, winners of the SEC regular season but more importantly, a tougher, grittier team that can finish a game.

The standard for Florida had been set so high with the two titles, a level the Gators couldn’t live up to after losing seven players off the title teams, including three top-10 picks. When the '04s returned for their junior season, Donovan said, recruiting suffered and the staff didn’t back-fill enough to offset the defections.

He crushed his team after that first season for its effort and cavalier attitude. He was frustrated at times with the failure to finish. But he didn’t quit on his players, and they didn’t quit on him or the school.

“It’s been so rewarding for me to see them make the journey they’ve made to this point right now,’’ Donovan said. “It’s been very rewarding and fulfilling for me, and I hope in some way I’ve been able to give them as much as they’ve given me.”

Sweet 16 preview: BYU vs. Florida

March, 24, 2011
NEW ORLEANS -- A quick glance at the Florida-BYU game:

No. 3 seed BYU (32-4) vs. No. 2 seed Florida (28-7), 7:27 p.m. ET (TBS)

Storyline: Rematch of a thrilling double-overtime win for BYU in last season’s NCAA tournament first round.

Headline name: BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. The national player of the year favorite scored 34 points in the win over Gonzaga in the Round of 32 and 32 points in the opening win over Wofford.

How to stop him: Florida coach Billy Donovan said no one talks about how good a passer Fredette is in setting up players like Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo. If the rest of the Gators are committed to stopping Fredette, they have to make sure the other BYU players are not that effective.

“Let’s see what they’ll do with Jimmer’s ball screens,’’ BYU coach Dave Rose said. “The rest of our team will react to that. If they’re going to come off that ball screen and just trap him and make him get the ball out of his hands, then we’re going to be playing with an advantage the whole night because we’ll have four offensive players attacking three defensive players.

“If they’re going to go underneath that thing, then Jimmer is probably going to get a couple of shots off,’’ Rose said. “So we all know, the whole team understands, what the first few minutes are.’’

Injury update: Florida’s Kenny Boynton injured his ankle in the win over UCLA. He was held out of practice but is good to go against the Cougars.

“We expect him to be fine,’’ Donovan said. “We just held him out to make sure he could move, cut, shoot and see if there was any lasting effect from the injury. There didn’t seem to be.’’

Glue guys: The Cougars may need some quality play from Logan Magnusson off the backboard or Stephen Rogers. But the Gators could do wonders against BYU if Patric Young (eight points, four rebounds) or or Erik Murphy (key 3-pointer) have games like they did against UCLA.

Who should win: Florida. The Gators have more overall depth and the potential for more production at various positions.

But...: Never underestimate Jimmer. BYU is playing with its most confidence since the Brandon Davies suspension for an honor code violation three weeks ago. BYU has now played seven games without Davies.

What should we be looking for: If Florida’s Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus control the boards, the Cougars are in trouble.

If Emery and Abouo are making 3s and Erving Walker and Boynton are not, the Cougars should be in good shape since we all know Jimmer is going to get his points.
NEW ORLEANS -- During last year's NCAA tournament, the Northern Iowa upset of Kansas dominated the first weekend. Butler’s dramatic wins in Salt Lake City upstaged that effort in the second weekend.

And then Butler did it again by nearly pulling off the improbable against Duke in the national title game with Gordon Hayward’s final two shots just off line in a 61-59 loss.

But there was one game during the NCAA tournament last year that gets lost. Its significance does not.

BYU beat Florida in double overtime in Oklahoma City in the first round.

The Gators were back in the NCAA tournament following a two-year hiatus in the wake of consecutive national championships in 2006 and 2007, when they became the first school to accomplish the feat since Duke did it in 1991 and ’92.

[+] EnlargeBYU's Jimmer Fredette
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesAs he did last March against BYU's Jimmer Fredette, Kenny Boynton always checks the opponent's most dangerous scorer.
It was also a chance for the mainstream sporting public to grasp onto Jimmer Fredette’s overall talent as he scored 37 points.

Florida used that game as a springboard into this season. The Gators were preseason picks to win the SEC East and the overall conference title, which they did on the way to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

BYU used the momentum of that win, even though it lost to Kansas State in the next round, to build for this season. Fredette was a first-team All-American in the preseason, and then ended the regular season as one of three favorites to win national player of the year. He has already been tabbed player of the year by one publication -- the Sporting News on Tuesday. The Cougars were a top-three team prior to Brandon Davies violating the school’s honor code, and ended up still grabbing a No. 3 seed in the Southeast.

So here they are again, this time meeting in the Sweet 16 with Houston and the Final Four within their sights. The region is wide open since the other game in the bracket is Butler-Wisconsin, both quality clubs but neither unbeatable for the Gators or Cougars.

“We had so many careless turnovers that led to easy baskets in that game,’’ said SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons of Florida. “We’ve got a good understanding from playing them last year. It’s not just Jimmer Fredette. The other guys are really good and understand their roles. We’re not just focused on Jimmer."

“Yeah, I think a lot of people lose sight of just how good the other guys are playing off Jimmer,’’ Parsons’ fellow senior Alex Tyus said. “I feel like the key to doing a good job on them is to stop the other guys, too.’’

Parsons said the Gators aren’t focusing on last year at all. He referenced the new personnel on both teams.

Florida coach Billy Donovan raved about Fredette, especially his work ethic, and sees a bit of himself in Fredette’s attention to detail. He also complimented the undervalued role players like Jackson Emery, Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo.

Donovan stressed that they weren’t playing the same team as a year ago and told his team that the Cougars are a better squad this season.

“We realize going into this game that we’re going to have to play a lot better than we did a year ago in a game that we didn’t win,’’ he said. “Coming out of that game, we can probably at least have a feel of size and athleticism. There is familiarity.’’

BYU coach Dave Rose echoed that sentiment.

“The familiarity in terms of playing them last year allows our guys to understand that it will take a great game for us to come out with a win,’’ Rose said. “We played one of our better games of the year last year and we were able to win by one point in overtime, in double overtime, so we understand the challenge.’’

The Gators were desperate to make the NCAAs last season and did so by the slimmest of margins. The quality showing gave Florida something to build on this season. But as Donovan said in the preseason, this collection of players still hadn't won an NCAA tournament game so it was still motivation for this season.

Falling short to the Cougars in the NCAAs was a huge chip for Donovan to play. For BYU, the win somewhat legitimized the Cougars and Fredette more on the national stage after losing to Texas A&M in two consecutive NCAA tournament first-round games. It was the school's first NCAA tourney win in 17 years.

And now the stakes are even higher. The winner will play for a spot in Houston on Saturday. With two more wins, BYU can make program history with its first appearance in the Final Four and Fredette can elevate himself to iconic status in the Beehive State. Florida’s seniors, Parsons and Tyus, can create their own legacy in Gainesville after coming in under the shadows of back-to-back titles.

The BYU-Florida game a year ago did wonders for both programs.

This rematch can do even more for the winner.
Here's Part 2, the Southeast, in our Know-It-All's Guide to the Sweet 16. Click here for Part 1, which previews the West region.

No. 3 BYU vs. No. 2 Florida
Thursday, 7:27 p.m. ET (New Orleans)

Breakdown: If I had to guess, I'd say the most popular question in any college hoops chat is "Who do you think will win and why?" My chat Monday was no different. By far the most frequently asked question -- it was the first one I answered, after all -- was about BYU-Florida. The question, basically, boiled down to this: "Didn't BYU beat Florida in the first round last year? Why should this year be any different?"

Well, besides the fact that it's been more than a year since that game happened, there are a few reasons:

1. Florida is better in every way. It's true that the Gators, who returned five starters from last season's so-so team, aren't all that different in 2011. What isn't true is that this team is somehow the same team that got Jimmered last March. In fact, the Gators have evolved into a much better, more comprehensive version of themselves. They still rely on low-post play and offensive rebounding, and they're still not the best 3-point shooting team in the country, but they are better in each of those categories.

2. This BYU team is different, too. Whether it's much better is up for debate. The college hoops universe has spent much of the 2010-11 season in the throes of Jimmer Mania, and for good reason: Jimmer Fredette is (probably) the best player in the country. But, believe it or not, he was actually more efficient last season. He also took far fewer shots; Fredette hovered in the top 60 in usage rate last season, but this season he's No. 2 in the nation in usage rate and No. 1 in the nation in shot percentage, i.e., the percentage of available shots he takes for his team. That statistic has only grown more notable in recent weeks, as BYU coach Dave Rose has responded to the loss of forward Brandon Davies by shifting even more of his team's offensive responsibility to Fredette. You might not have thought this was possible, but apparently it was.

This could be read a couple of ways. You could make the argument that BYU's offense is less versatile this season, that the loss of Davies makes the Cougars essentially a one-man team. (That's not entirely fair, as Jackson Emery, Noah Hartsock and Charles Abouo are plenty capable, too, but when any player takes 38 percent of your shots, it's worth pointing out.) You also could argue that Florida's defense, which is OK but not great and which was torched by Fredette for 37 points last March, is even more vulnerable against this season's Jimmer -- a once-in-a-generation player with an entire offense designed around his unique ability to score.

Simply put, the Gators have to control the game. You can't run up and down with BYU. You have to make Fredette grind it out in the half court, and you have to do your best to pressure him with multiple defenders without giving up easy looks for Emery and Hartsock. (It will be interesting to see whether Billy Donovan puts the 6-foot-10 Chandler Parsons on Fredette. That could be a fascinating matchup.)

On the offensive end, UF's guards -- Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, especially -- have to avoid the temptation to launch 3s against BYU's zone, something the inconsistent duo has been unable to do for much of their time in Donovan's backcourt. Lots of 3s equal long rebounds, and no team in the nation is better at running off long rebounds than Brigham Young. The Gators have to play to their strengths: Parsons has to work to the rim, Vernon Macklin needs touches inside, and Alex Tyus and Patric Young have to corral offensive boards.

Sure, these two teams are similar to last season's squads; the personnel are too similar for that not to be the case. But that's no guarantee of a similar result. By most measures, Thursday's game seems like a toss-up.

Impress (or annoy) your friends: "Everybody hopped on the Jimmer bandwagon this season, but I've been into him since his sophomore year. I think my favorite Jimmer season was probably last year -- he didn't have as much hoopla, but real college basketball fans would know he was slightly more efficient last season. Now he's just so ... mainstream. Although this season did give us the Jimmer Facebook thread. Wait, what? Hand me that laptop; you guys gotta see this."

No. 8 Butler vs. No. 4 Wisconsin
Thursday, approx. 9:57 p.m. ET (New Orleans)

Breakdown: After you get done being a Jimmer Fredette hipster (not to be confused with "hoopster," i.e., a person who wears an ironic vintage jersey to Pitchfork every year), you can extend your detached, knowing commentary to this game, where it will take a genuinely dedicated basketball fan to appreciate the style of basketball being played by both teams.

In other words: This is not going to be an up-and-down thriller. Butler's defensive style -- the strategy that took the Bulldogs all the way to the national championship last year -- eschews offensive rebounding in favor of preventing transition buckets and forming a defensive shell in the half court. That style has worked again this March. Butler isn't the elite defensive team it was in 2009-10 -- there's another factoid to keep in your pocket -- but the Bulldogs have been greatly helped by the return of guard Ronald Nored, who takes a unique level of pride in his ability to hassle opposing teams' star guards.

Stylistically, Wisconsin is a great matchup for the Bulldogs. Bo Ryan's team is the slowest in the country. The Badgers prefer to walk the ball up the floor, take as much off the shot clock as possible, and get any number of good looks out of the swing offense that Ryan has perfected in his remarkably consistent run in Madison. This season, Wisconsin has more than the system -- Jordan Taylor can create and make shots from just about anywhere on the floor, and Jon Leuer is a ruthless, versatile interior -- but even with all that offense, the Badgers won't be looking to speed up anything.

So, no, Butler won't have to hurry back down the floor. This game will be played at a glacial pace. That means a low-scoring, tight affair, one in which the margin will never be more than a few possessions and one that will come down to a handful of key plays late in the game. That's how both teams got here -- Wisconsin barely outlasted Kansas State in the final moments Saturday, and let's not go into that Butler-Pittsburgh finish -- and that's how the winner will advance Thursday night.

Impress (or annoy) your friends: "Do you guys read the New Yorker? A couple of years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about how undermatched teams should play hectic, up-tempo basketball to change the strategy of the game. I'll send you the link.

"I agreed with Gladwell on his premise -- if you're an underdog, you have to be different -- but disagree with his prescription. Just look at Wisconsin. If I ran a team that hardly ever lands elite recruits, I would do what Bo Ryan does. I'd get guys who never turn the ball over, who don't need a disproportionate number of touches on offense, who almost always make their free throws and who don't care whether we play fast or slow. And then I'd learn the swing offense and make my team walk the ball up the floor. Man, I could totally be a college basketball coach."

Fredette scores 34 as BYU crushes Zags

March, 20, 2011

DENVER -- BYU fans were chanting long after the team had left the court at the Pepsi Center. Their cries could be heard inside the Cougars locker room, where a player asked Jimmer Fredette if he could understand the chants.

“3:16?” he asked Fredette, a reference to the famed verse of Biblical scripture.

The BYU faithful were actually chanting “Sweet 16!“ The team's hearing problem was one of the few struggles the Cougars experienced as they trounced 11th-seeded Gonzaga 89-67 on Saturday. Behind Fredette’s 34, BYU advanced to the regional semifinal round for the first time in 30 years.

“It’s been a long time for our fans, and I’m happy, really happy for them,” said BYU coach Dave Rose, pausing as his voice cracked with emotion. “I’m happy for our players, happy for our coaches, our administration. I mean, everybody is in this. We’re in this together. This is a special team.”

Fredette, the nation’s leading scorer, delivered one of his most memorable performances, hitting seven 3-pointers and burying the Zags.

The Cougars faced many uncertainties heading into the tournament.

Leading rebounder Brandon Davies had been suspended for the rest of the season in early March after violating the school’s honor code. He was relegated to the bench wearing a sweater rather than a jersey. In its first game following Davies' suspension, BYU lost to New Mexico at home. Rose told the team it needed to adjust or this magical season would soon end.

He also implemented associate head coach Dave Rice’s new game plan -- a strategy that called for spreading the floor and creating chances based on driving and kicking the ball out to the perimeter.

Against an imposing Gonzaga frontline that included 7-foot center Robert Sacre and ultra-athletic 6-foot-7 forward Elias Harris, BYU did just that. Fredette scored his first five field goals on 3-pointers. He ran off screens and pulled up in transition to get looks at the basket. While Fredette was 2-for-9 from beyond the arc two days earlier against Wofford, he was 7-for-12 facing a mixture of man-to-man and zone defenses from the Zags.

“You have off nights, then you come back and have good nights,” Fredette said. “Kind of the law of percentages throughout the year.”

Said guard Jackson Emery: “Jimmer’s Jimmer. He’s going to score from outside, inside, you never know.”

The Cougars made half of their 3-point attempts, with Emery and Noah Hartsock each notching three. Emery scored 11 of his 16 points in the first half while Hartsock scored 13 on 5-for-5 shooting.

Hartsock got in early foul trouble, but Stephen Rogers came off the bench to score 10 first-half points and James Anderson blocked two shots to further show that BYU isn’t just about Fredette.

The Bulldogs (25-10) saw their 10-game winning streak snapped despite 17 points from Sacre and 18 points apiece from Harris and senior Steven Gray. Harris grabbed eight rebounds, and Sacre had seven to help outrebound the Cougars 36-27.

But after a Gray 3-pointer cut the lead to eight with 12:19 left, BYU responded with a 12-0 run capped off by back-to-back 3-pointers from Fredette and Hartsock, and eventually extended the lead to 24. Rose called this the best game BYU has played all season.

“They got points, they were physical, but we tried to be physical back with them even though we don‘t have the size,” Hartsock said.

Not since Danny Ainge led BYU to a run to the Elite Eight in 1981 has the program experienced this level of success. The Fredette worship has become a national phenomenon. In each corner of the Pepsi Center, fans held up homemade posters and marked Fredette’s points as he scored them. They left plenty of space available just in case the star senior exploded for more.

The Cougars hope to make more history during a dream season in which Emery has already broken Ainge’s all-time steals record and Fredette has broken the school record for points. They’ll now face Florida in New Orleans for a chance to go to the Elite Eight.

“It’s stuff you’ve always dreamed of,” Emery said. “We know we’re not done yet.”

Rapid Reaction: BYU 89, Gonzaga 67

March, 19, 2011
DENVER -- BYU beat Gonzaga 89-64 to earn a spot in the Sweet 16 -- the first time the Cougars have gotten this far since 1981. They did it behind Jimmer Fredette's 34 points and six assists. Jackson Emery scored 16 points, and Noah Hartsock added 13. The Zags were led by Steven Gray and Elias Harris, who scored 18 points apiece. But with BYU making 14 of their 28 3-point attempts, there was no stopping the Cougars.

Turning point: Gonzaga briefly got the lead down to single digits, but Fredette’s seventh 3-pointer made it 72-55. Hartsock then hit another to push the lead to 20 with 8:17 left, leaving Fredette emotional headed into the timeout.

Key player: Fredette was held without a field goal for nearly the first nine minutes of the game, but he soon began to heat up. He finished 11-for-23 from the field, was perfect at the line and finished with seven 3-pointers.

Key stat: Fredette was 7-of-12 from beyond the arc, taking advantage of whatever defense the Zags were throwing at him, man-to-man or zone. The Zags ran different defenders at Fredette, and it was no use.

Miscellaneous: The Cougars were out-rebounded 36-27 by a bigger Zags team, but still managed to do enough to slow Gonzaga's frontline. Kyle Collinsworth played well and had six points and seven rebounds, and Hartsock was a perfect 5-for-5 from the field.

What’s next: BYU moves on to the Sweet 16 in New Orleans to face Florida, a team the Cougars beat last season in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Preview: Saturday in Denver

March, 19, 2011

No. 13 seed Morehead State (25-9) vs. No. 12 seed Richmond (28-7), 5:15 p.m. ET

How they got here: Both 12th-seeded Richmond and 13th-seeded Morehead State staged comebacks against power-conference teams on Thursday. The Spiders beat Vanderbilt 69-66, with guard Kevin Anderson making big shot after big shot and finishing with 25 points. The Eagles defeated Louisville 62-61, with Demonte Harper making the game-winning 3-pointer and Terrance Hill getting hot from beyond the arc as well, scoring 23 points.

Storyline: One of these two double-digit seeds will get to go to the Sweet 16. Richmond, which has a history of big upsets, now takes on the role of the favorite. The Spiders lost to Saint Mary’s in that position last season and now have a chance to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1988. For Morehead State, it‘s a chance to make history again with its first trip to a regional semifinal. “This game is really important because Coach [Donnie Tyndall] told us we have a chance to make it to the Sweet 16 before the season even started,” Harper said.

Players to watch: Think Tyndall likes his chances with Harper and star forward Kenneth Faried? He called Faried his Gordon Hayward and compared Harper, who has shown his ability to take the last shot, to Shelvin Mack of Butler. For Richmond, Anderson proved himself to be a shot-maker against Vanderbilt. Leading scorer Justin Harper struggled with his shot, and the Spiders could use a big day from their senior.

What to look for: Faried is one of the stars of the tournament so far, and he didn’t even have a great offensive game against Louisville. But Faried is so dominant a rebounder and such an athletic presence in the middle that he impacts the game in so many ways.

“We know he doesn’t give a lot of second shots on the offensive end,” Anderson said of the nation's leading rebounder. “It’s going to be tough to stop him."

Richmond could try containing Faried with the 6-foot-10 Harper, relying on his ability to shoot from long range. But lest we forget: Anderson will be a tough matchup for Morehead State, as well.

No. 11 seed Gonzaga (25-9) vs. No. 3 seed BYU (31-4), approx. 7:45 p.m. ET

How they got here: BYU was the only favorite in Denver that did not get upset in the first day of action, as the Cougars dispatched of Wofford with a 74-66 win. Jimmer Fredette scored 32 points, and he also got help with Charles Abouo, Noah Hartsock and Logan Magnusson scoring 10 points apiece. Gonzaga dominated St. John’s with an 86-71 win in which Marquise Carter scored a career-high 24 points and Steven Gray and Elias Harris also had big nights.

Storyline: Not since Danny Ainge was leading Brigham Young have the Cougars been in the Sweet 16, and now it’s Fredette who will try to take them there 30 years later. BYU has won its first tourney game in each of the past two years, but now wants to make a deeper run. For Gonzaga, the perennial dangerous underdog, the Zags want to continue proving themselves as a team and program to be reckoned with. A win against BYU and the national scoring leader Fredette would be yet another milestone victory.

Players to watch: Again, look for Fredette to carry the scoring load despite the opponent’s best efforts to contain him. And in a game with huge ramifications, expect a big dose of him. But Gonzaga does have the advantage of having 7-foot center Robert Sacre to try to exploit a BYU frontcourt missing the post presence of Brandon Davies. Sacre, after helping the Zags dominate St. John’s on the glass, indicated he was looking forward to the matchup against BYU. “A little bit, but they still have Jimmer,” he said.

What to look for: While limiting the damage Fredette does is a must, this game could come down to how well Gonzaga can exploit its height advantage with Sacre, along with the 6-5 guard Gray and 6-7 forward Harris, who are both dynamic players.

“They’re a very big team,” Fredette said. “They got to the offensive glass very well. They get a lot of second-chance opportunities, which gives them a lot of energy.”

Gonzaga will have to continue to get good guard play as well from Carter and point guard Demetri Goodson in order to slow down Fredette and Jackson Emery.
BYU CelebrationAP Photo/Lenny IgnelziDo the Cougars deserve to be a No. 1 seed in March?
Well ... do you?

Barring an unforeseen loss down the stretch -- BYU still has games versus New Mexico and Wyoming, as well as the Mountain West tournament, which is likely to feature a rematch with San Diego State -- that might become the most pertinent and challenging question the NCAA tournament selection committee has to answer as it seeds and selects the field March 13. Does BYU deserve a No. 1 seed? If so, why? If not, why not?

It's also a question for bracket-obsessed college hoops fans: How far will you have BYU advancing when it comes time to put down the pencil and pick up the pen? With Jimmer Fredette at the helm, following an impressive nationally televised road win over a top-10 team, are you all-in on the Cougars?

Saturday afternoon, in an attempt to see what people thought about the seeding question, I conducted an informal poll on Twitter. The results? Undecided. Some said "absolutely." Others were baffled I even asked in the first place. ("Uh, no" was a common response.)

Frankly, it's a bit of a unfair question. There are at least five legitimate competitors for the four No. 1 seeds, all of whom could still make a claim at a spot on the top line. (And yes, Texas' chances took a major hit Saturday with a loss to Colorado, but a strong finish in the Big 12 tournament could still keep the Longhorns alive.) The dynamic between late-season play and overall body of work is going to play a major role, and conference tournament results could be deciding factors between the slimmest of profile differences on Selection Sunday. The chase, as they say, is on.

Maybe a more pertinent poll, then, would have gone something like this: How far are you riding the Jimmer train? Do you think BYU is a legitimate national title contender? Or do you think the Cougars are ripe for an upset on the first or second week of the tournament?

Let's go to the tape. For starters, here are some reasons BYU die-hards and bandwagon riders might cite to back up their enthusiasm:

  • BYU has Jimmer. Jimmer is really, really good. Far worse teams than this one -- think Davidson with Stephen Curry -- have ridden singular stars to deep tournament runs before. Guard play is an all-important factor in the college game and especially in the NCAA tournament.
  • The rest of the Cougars are pretty good themselves, and when teams focus too much on Fredette, complementary pieces like Jackson Emery, Noah Hartsock, Brandon Davies and Charles Abouo can hurt you inside and out. Also, with Davies patrolling the paint, the Cougars are more athletic and tougher defensively than in years past.
  • BYU's schedule (strength of schedule: 14) and conference (the Mountain West) are not nearly as bad as you'd typically expect from a non-power-six team. The "they haven't played anyone" rap doesn't apply this year.
  • The Cougars have some impressive performance-based statistics to back up that gaudy record, and they aren't just an offensive juggernaut. Dave Rose's squad entered Saturday as the No. 7-ranked team in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy, thanks to some highly efficient traits on both ends of the floor. The Cougars don't necessarily need to shoot the lights out to win, either. In fact, their best offensive factor is that low turnover rate -- 15.5 as of this writing -- that ranks them No. 3 in the nation overall.
  • Oh, and BYU has Jimmer. He's pretty good. Did I mention that already?

So, yes, there are a lot of reasons to like this BYU team in your bracket. But detractors and disbelievers have their reasons, too:

  • [+] EnlargeBilly White and Jimmer Fredette
    AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziBilly White and the Aztecs were able to limit Jimmer Fredette's production on Saturday.
    Who has BYU really beaten? Cougars fans won't like this argument, but it isn't entirely far-fetched, and it hinges on how good you think the Aztecs -- and the other top teams in the Mountain West -- really are. If you think San Diego State is a tad overrated (again, not far-fetched, based on what we saw Saturday afternoon), then you might not be all that enthusiastic about the Cougars' two wins over SDSU, which are basically BYU's best wins of the season. The other top-50 RPI wins all either came against UNLV, Colorado State, Utah State or Arizona. If you think San Diego State is as good as advertised, then you might not mind all this. But if you have your questions -- not to mention the sinking feeling that Saturday's game didn't look like two No. 1 seed, Final Four-caliber contenders -- then BYU's record doesn't do much to salve those concerns.
  • If Brigham Young goes cold, the Cougars could be vulnerable. No, BYU doesn't live and die by the 3-pointer -- see that second-to-last bullet above -- but they do excel when they're sticking open 3s, and they do take their fair share. About 36 percent of the Cougars' field goal attempts are 3s, which ranks them in the top 100 percentage-wise nationally. That's not a ton, but it's not a small mark, and if the Cougars hit a freak slump in the tournament, a huge chunk of their offense goes by the wayside.
  • Jimmer can be guarded by athletic opponents. BYU doubters (and Nolan Smith/Kemba Walker/Jared Sullinger player of the year advocates) have used this to justify all sorts of things this season, from why Jimmer shouldn't be player of the year (he only beats up on weak competition!) to why BYU isn't the real deal. I don't agree. Jimmer has scored against pretty much everyone throughout his career, and last season's 37-point performance against Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament speaks to that. But Saturday's game did lend some credence to this theory. When Jimmer was guarded by Billy White -- SDSU's long, strong stretch wing -- he went 3-13 from the field and 0-of-7 on isolation plays, according to ESPN Research. When Jimmer was guarded by anyone else, he went 5-of-10 and scored 17 of his 25 points. If BYU meets a team with an athletic, intelligent defender that can make things difficult for Jimmer without needing a double-team -- these sorts of players don't grow on trees, but there will be more than a few of them in the bracket -- then BYU's offense could stagnate.
  • The eye test. I hate the eye test, but if you doubt the Cougars, your eyes probably have something to do with it. Ask a casual fan to watch BYU -- my roommates are a pretty good example -- and they often come away unimpressed. Whether fair or unfair, they might have a point. Is BYU really good enough to hang with, say, Kansas? Pittsburgh? Ohio State?
  • We've been here before, and BYU has let us down both times, a trend ESPN Insider's John Gasaway noted all the way back in early January. Insider Yes, this team is better than either of the past two seasons. But Jimmer hasn't exactly come out of nowhere. He's been a top player for three seasons in Provo, and BYU has been impressive on a per-possession basis in each of those seasons. And yet, in March, the Cougars have disappointed. In 2009, BYU ended the season ranked No. 21 in the nation in adjusted efficiency; that team lost in the first-round to Texas A&M. Last season, BYU finished 30-6 and ranked No. 10 in adjusted efficiency; the Cougars didn't make it past the first weekend. That might be coincidence more than anything. The tournament is a pretty small sample size, and BYU did lose to Kansas State in 2010, a team that eventually went all the way to the Elite Eight. But it does raise concerns, a little like Wisconsin, that this efficient, impressive regular season team can't translate that success to college basketball's biggest stage. That goes for the entire Mountain West, actually. As Gasaway noted, since 2000 the MWC has sent 26 teams to the NCAA tournament. Only two of them have made it to Sweet 16.

In the end, as it always does, BYU's chances of making a deep tourney run will come down to matchups, seeding and location. Your bracket projections might have to be adjusted accordingly.

My answer? I buy the Cougars. I'm not worried about a relative lack of postseason success in the past. Nor am I particularly concerned about a batch of cold shooting. Yes, Jimmer & Co. could go cold in the tournament, but you could say that about any team. And I'm not one to poke holes in BYU's schedule. The Mountain West has been solid all season, and at some point, you have to give a team credit for winning the games it has won. It's not easy to get to 27 wins -- or 30 wins, or whatever BYU will end up with this season -- no matter who you play. And BYU has played plenty of tough teams.

As we've learned multiple times this season, it's never a good idea to doubt The Jimmer. Nor is it wise to sleep on Jimmer's supporting cast.

Your results may vary, but right now, I'm banging Jim Cramer's "buy buy buy!" button to annoying effect. Be skeptical if you want, but don't be surprised when the Cougars prove you wrong in the tournament. You were warned.