BYU shoots into contention for a 1 seed — and it wasn’t just Jimmer

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BYU’s case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament got a huge boost Saturday.

The surprise? It wasn’t all because of Jimmer Fredette.

The No. 7 Cougars handed No. 6 San Diego State just its second loss of the season thanks to some impressive shooting beyond the arc – 14 of 24 – and nasty interior defense in an 80-67 road win.

“I told our team, ‘BYU is Final Four good,'” SDSU coach Steve Fisher said. “And I don’t know that our guys liked to hear that. And then I said, ‘We are, too.’ Today, they were the better team. No excuses. They made plays. They made shots.”

Fredette, the nation’s leading scorer, finished with 25 points, two below his season average. He burned the Aztecs for 43 in their first meeting, a 71-58 win back in January, but never found his stroke in this one, missing 15 of 23 shots. (The Aztecs used a zone on him for most of the game, which worked; he started 4 of 6, then struggled.)

So he did what any smart player would do – he passed to teammates who couldn’t miss.

“A lot of times, they are double-teaming me and I was getting them the ball and they were wide open, so they are going to make shots if they are wide open,” Fredette said.

Six of his game-high nine assists came on 3-point shots as five Cougars hit from deep, led by guard Charles Abouo, who hit 4 of 5 and finished with 18 points, just off his season high. Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock also combined for 28 points, 15 of them from 3-point land. (Not that Fredette was a waste; he hit 4 of 8 from 3.)

Overall, the Cougars were 27 of 58 from the field and 14 of 24 from 3.

Not that it was an atypical road performance for BYU. In fact, it’s getting to be downright normal.

The Cougars (27-2 overall, 13-1 in Mountain West play) make 36.8 from 3-point land on the season, slightly above the D-I average. But they’ve hit at least 10 3-pointers in six of their last eight road games. Saturday was the third time they’ve hit 14 3s on the road. (Their high? 15 two weeks ago vs. Air Force.)

Combine that with their defense rarely allowing San Diego State (27-2, 12-2) an easy look at the basket – Aztecs made just 42 percent of their 2-point attempts; usually they make 51 percent – and it showcased a BYU team that firmly established itself as a national title contender and as a team worthy of a top seed. (Especially when they shoot like that.)

“Whether they shoot 14 for 24 or not, they are going to be a very, very difficult out for anyone in the NCAA tournament,” Fisher said. “I don’t care who it is. They are that good.”

Its résumé compares favorably with Duke’s – both have roughly the same number of RPI Top 100 wins – and could get the nod by winning the MWC tournament. Texas’ loss on Saturday opens things up even more.

Most importantly, BYU did it without Fredette scoring 40 points and against a bigger, more physical team. The Cougars keep that up, they won’t have to lean on Jimmer in March.

And that’s a good thing.

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