SAN DIEGO -- On the Monday before San Diego State's nationally televised, 80-67 home loss to BYU, Aztecs coach Steve Fisher e-mailed a letter to his student section, "The Show," urging them to be respectful of the visiting Cougars, writing, "We cannot cross the line into topics that are out of bounds and distasteful, particularly making fun of one's religion." If there was any notion that Fisher's plea would be heeded, any hope for decorum in Viejas Arena for the long-awaited visit of The Jimmer, the biggest star and leading scorer in college basketball ... well, that went out the window shortly after 9:25 a.m. on Saturday, when the doors opened and The Show poured in after camping outside for as many as three days.
A good portion of them were dressed like Mormon missionaries, in short-sleeved, white dress shirts, black ties and bike helmets. And at the center of the first row was a 10-year-old who'd been allowed in with the students, and he was holding a red posterboard that read, "Hi Mom(s)."
"My mom made it for me," the boy said. "She told me that the BYU players have more than one mom."
The rest of the signs appeared soon after, having been smuggled in past security, who had threatened to confiscate anything "derogatory or disrespectful." During the Aztecs' 27-1 start, The Show has earned notoriety as one of the country's most rabid student sections. And although it was criticized for its behavior during BYU's 2010 visit, mostly for a "You're Still Mormon" chant, The Show did not hold much back this time.
Vince Silva, an '09 SDSU grad who was also in the front row, his missionary outfit accessorized with a boxing title belt, passed out fliers that included a picture of a rotund young Fredette under the headline "Fat Jimmer."
Asked what would happen in this heavyweight bout -- The Jimmer vs. The Show, No. 7 BYU vs. No. 6 SDSU, for supremacy of the Mountain West -- Silva said, "Jimmer is going to get owned.
As the Jimmer Tour has rolled through his senior season, with him making his national Player of the Year case through Salt Lake City and Albuquerque, and Fort Collins and Fort Worth, he has heard everything. "He's building up his tolerance," teammate Jackson Emery said of Fredette. "He's extra level-headed, and he plays hard no matter what."
On Saturday, in what was the wildest atmosphere of any regular-season game I've seen this year, mostly thanks to The Show, Fredette said he managed to ignore the crowd during warmups. And during timeouts -- with the huddles held in the vicinity of The Show -- he often ignored everyone, including his teammates and coaches, clasping his hands together and staring straight into the ground. For San Diego State's game plan, understandably, was focused on him as much as its students were. In the teams' first meeting, on Jan. 26 in Provo, Jimmer had scored 43 points and established his status as the sport's preeminent rock star. Here, on their home court, the Aztecs altered their defensive strategy.
Six-foot-two sophomore guard Chase Tapley started out on Fredette, but Tapley had plenty of help, as they doubled hard off of BYU's hard ball-screens, with hopes of taking the ball out of Fredette's hands. He still got his points -- 13 in the first half, on 5-of-13 shooting, and then 12 more in the second, on 3-of-10 shooting -- but he made an important adjustment. As the double-teams only got bigger, with 6-8 Billy White taking over for Tapley, and only pushed further up the court, with 6-7 Kawhi Leonard joining White to smother Fredette as soon as he crossed halfcourt during the second half, it became clear that Jimmer the Scorer would have to give way to someone else:
Jimmer the Creator.
In SDSU's visit to Provo, Fredette had zero assists to go with his 43 points. Here, he scored 18 fewer points but had nine assists, setting up teammate after teammate for scoring opportunities. In the first half, he assisted on two threes and one shorter jumper by Noah Hartsock, and one three by Charles Abouo. They took a 38-35 lead into halftime, and withstood multiple Aztecs runs, on the strength of the non-Jimmers' shooting.
Midway through the second half, Fredette assisted on threes by Stephen Rogers (at the 9:55 mark) and Emery (at 8:20) that put BYU up 13, and began to take the crowd out of the game. After SDSU cut the lead to single digits at 60-58 (at 5:49), Fredette found Abouo for another three that halted the momentum. Any ideas that the Aztecs had of mounting a furious, last-minute rally were erased when Fredette dribbled circles around most of their defense, drove toward the rim, and dished to a cutting Brandon Davies for a wide-open dunk that made it 78-67 with 1:06 left.
"You just read what the defense gives you," Fredette would say afterwards. "So you become a willing passer, give up the ball, and they were sticking shots. [The Aztecs] were paying for doubling me tonight."
The final margin -- 13 points -- was the same as the teams' first meeting, but this time, the dagger shots were made by others. Emery finished with 13 points, Hartsock with 15, Abouo with 18, and as a team they shot an astounding 14-of-24 from long range. Fredette did have a few Vintage Jimmer treys, including one from a few steps past the end of the Aztecs' midcourt spear in the first half, but his biggest highlights turned out to be his assists.
"Jimmer is a great player -- probably the best in the country," Emery said. "But the reason he's good is that the rest of us can hit shots, so they can't double- and triple-team him every time."
Fisher's experiment with double- and triple-teaming didn't work much better than what he tried in Provo, which was mostly to leave D.J. Gay in single coverage on Fredette. I had eagerly awaited Fisher's strategy for the rematch, and what he did with White and Leonard
It was, in a way, a day of foiled plans at Viejas Arena, between Fisher's D, his team's stagnant zone offense, and one operation by The Show that I'd been following on the Internet.
The Show is so energized that it has its own message board, on which one of this week's threads was titled,
In the context of everything else -- the missionary uniforms and the signs -- this stunt probably would have fit right in. As the thread progressed, one of the board's members actually began the process of making a Jimmer scarecrow. He later posted a photo of its headless torso, and then asked questions such as, "CAN WE FIND ANYONE TO GET THIS INSIDE THE ARENA SO IT IS NOT CONFISCATED OUTSIDE?" and "ARE WE DOING THIS AND WHO IS GOING TO RIP OUT THE HEART?"
But early on Saturday morning, he admitted defeat, having learned that the Jimmer scarecrow would not be allowed inside the arena. I held out hope that some clandestine, offline operation would get it into the game, but alas, it never appeared. No scarecrow, no sacrifice, nothing to put a scare in No. 32.
It wasn't until after the game, when Fredette walked off the floor, pointing up toward a crew of jubilant BYU fans, that a San Diego State student finally got his attention. A kid wearing a black hoodie leaned over the railing at the top of the tunnel, and threw a knotted towel that hit the Jimmer square in the head. He barely flinched, and kept walking as stadium security proceeded to chase down the towel-chucker.
Jimmer would later say that he's used to that stuff -- the projectiles, the taunting -- but most of us didn't expect him to emerge from Viejas so unscathed, with a double-digit victory and his team now in consideration for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. His first three trips to the dance have ended in the opening weekend, but the question now is: If BYU could sail through an environment like this, and if its star can keep adapting to every defensive wrinkle, is there really anything it won't be able to handle in March?