Is BYU a Cinderella Story or a Legitimate Contender?

Don’t you love a good Cinderella story?

Remember Butler University last year in the NCAA championship game? They were inches away from beating a high-profile Duke team and becoming the first team from outside one of the power conferences to take home the national championship trophy since UNLV did it in 1990, a team that coincidentally defeated Duke in the finals. Though the Bulldogs came up two points short, they wet America’s appetite for the underdog.

Unfortunately, many of the early season candidates have fallen by the wayside.

The good news: two “mid-major” teams have been so dominant that if one were to cut down the nets in April, comparisons to Butler may be an insult to their talent. No. 6 San Diego State and No. 7 BYU have put the Mountain West Conference on the map, and in a season that has been the epitome of parody, they have just as much of a chance of winning it all as anybody else.

jimmer fredette player of the year 2011

photo from chrisdetrick.com

The Aztecs are not perfect, and they have a 71-58 loss to BYU on Jan. 26 to thank for that. The Cougars — who also go by “Jimmer and the Fredettes” — are a force to be reckoned with.

BYU has what every team in the country dreams of — the leading candidate in the player of the year race. Senior Jimmer Fredette is instantly on another level from everyone else when he steps on the court. Jimmer is deadly from just about anywhere on the court, nailing three-pointers from 25 feet with ease and driving through double teams to get himself to the foul line, where he is a 90-percent shooter.

Mountain West teams have doubled, even triple-teamed Jimmer; they’ve changed defenders every few minutes, shoot – they’ve thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Fredette but have still failed to stop him time and again. The six-foot-two Glen Falls, N.Y. native continues to put up points, now averaging a nation-best 27.6 points per game. In fact, he has failed to top 20 points only four times all season, while also averaging a team-leading 4.3 assists. Sticking around for his senior year has paid off, and Fredette is now projected to go in the late first round or early second round of the NBA draft.

But even the great Fredette cannot do it alone. Senior Jackson Emery is Fredette’s backcourt partner, and the one responsible for picking up the slack on his rare off nights. Emery has totaled 20 or more points multiple times this season, including 20 in a 77-75 double overtime win against South Florida.

The Cougars’ résumé holds a bit more clout than the Aztecs’, with victories over Pac-10-leading Arizona, No. 17 Utah State, St. Mary’s and San Diego State itself. Yet their two losses keep them ranked below the Aztecs.

Unfortunately for both squads, Mountain West TV contract obligations have kept them off of ESPN — and thus out of the public eye — for much of the season. When the two teams did get on national television for their matchup with each other, they played an ugly game. Leonard struggled with flu-like symptoms as his team looked sloppy on the road. Meanwhile, on the BYU side of the ball, it seemed like no one besides Fredette could make a shot.

But the two teams benefit from playing in the deepest mid-major conference west of the Atlantic 10. Fellow Mountain West member UNLV has notched wins over Wisconsin, Virginia Tech and Kansas State, while Colorado State sits on the bubble as well. By not playing in-conference cupcakes week in and week out, the Cougars and Aztecs have been able to retain two of the best RPIs in the nation at No. 2 and No. 4, respectively.

With a month left to go in the season, BYU seems to be the bigger threat to wreak havoc in the tournament. It has a player that is unstoppable down the stretch, the experience of a second-round run in 2010, and most importantly, a victory over the Aztecs. But that could all change Feb. 26 when the two teams meet in San Diego for a rematch. The game will be televised on CBS nationally, and it is a can’t-miss for any college basketball fan.

As with many of the top teams in the country, both San Diego State and BYU have plenty of question marks as the tournament approaches. But one thing is clear:

Cinderella has grown some muscles.

Thanks to TuftsDaily for this insight.

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