Sunday, March 13, 2011

Each March, college basketball's regular season fades from memory as fans and players gear up for the NCAA Tournament and all the hoopla that comes with it: The brackets. Cinderellas. Buzzer beaters.

But this year was different. Long before March arrived, this season was officially Jimmered.

Brigham Young University guard Jimmer Fredette spent his senior season torching opposing defenses and shooting 3-pointers from unguardable distances.

"In a day and age where there's very little must-see TV, I think he's must-see TV," said David Locke, host of an afternoon sports radio show in Salt Lake City.

Heading into the postseason, Fredette isn't just leading the nation in scoring (27.9 points per game) and starting to pile up player of the year awards. In the world of college hoops, the unassuming kid with the funny name is also tops in Twitter references and YouTube videos.

He doesn't really look the part -- undersized (listed at 6 feet 2 inches) and a little slow, with a linebacker's shoulders. Yet he scores at will, inspires songs and is responsible for college basketball's version of a catchphrase -- teams don't just lose to BYU, they get Jimmered.

"He's one of those guys you expect the ball to go in and when the ball doesn't go in when he shoots it, you're kind of like 'Wow, he just actually missed a shot,' " says Bill Riley, the play-by-play announcer for BYU's chief rival, the University of Utah.

Fresh off a road win over then-No. 6 San Diego State, the Cougars looked like a sure-fire No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament -- a huge boon for a program that has yet to reach a Final Four. Then news broke that the team's primary inside player, Brandon Davies, had been suspended indefinitely for violating the Mormon Church-owned school's strict honor code.

Critics called BYU too Jimmercentric before. Now the Cougars may have no choice but to feed him the ball early and often when the tournament begins next week.

A social media 'phenomenon'

What separates Fredette from recent college basketball stars -- say, Stephen Curry or Adam Morrison -- isn't so much what he's achieved on the court, but rather how much attention he's garnered off it. It's arguable whether the state of Utah has ever produced a better college basketball player -- Utah's Keith Van Horn and Andrew Bogut and BYU's Danny Ainge are close -- but there's no comparing the hype.

"He's a fabulous player, I'm not trying to take anything away from him, but he's a little bit of a social-networking phenomenon," Locke said.

Consider Fredette's place in the hierarchy of collegiate sports. He doesn't play for one of college basketball's blue bloods like Duke or Kentucky. BYU plays in the relatively obscure Mountain West Conference with an abysmal TV contract. Jimmermania exploded on January 26 during a game on CBS College Sports, a network lost in the hinterlands of paid-TV programming.

Fredette scored 43 that night in BYU's first meeting against San Diego State, prompting defending NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant to famously tweet, "Jimmer Fredette is the best scorer in the world."

In the week that followed, he became a sports media darling. Fans quickly learned that Fredette's biography was just as compelling as his scoring ability. Raised in Glens Falls, New York, by a Catholic mother (who nicknamed him Jimmer; his given name is James) and a converted Mormon father.

His brother TJ served as a mentor and is now an aspiring rapper, best known for his song "Amazing" and the accompanying Jimmer highlight reel on YouTube.

Big brother took Jimmer to play pickup ball in New York, arranged games at a nearby prison against inmates and made him sign a contract that he'd do everything in his power to reach the NBA.

It's a goal Jimmer will reach next season -- though scouts remain torn on his professional potential.

In that last week of January, Fredette quickly rose from regional fame to household name -- and it didn't hurt that his name was a bit on the quirky side.

"If his name is James, I can't Twitter search James. But if somebody types in Jimmer, the only reason, they're typing in Jimmer is because of (Fredette)," said Locke.

YouTube is is loaded with Fredette highlights, clip after clip of him raining 3s from seemingly ill-advised distances or twisting in the lane for how-did-he-do-that? layups.

"He makes the long-range ones, but he's really creative, really clever. ... Sometimes he uses his feet, sometimes he pauses, does all sorts of little things here and there that throw his defender off just enough where he can create space for himself and get off a shot," said Jay Drew, who covers BYU for The Salt Lake Tribune and calls Fredette "the mentally strongest athlete I've covered in 20 years."

Music videos sing his praises, such as the multiple versions of a "Teach Me How to Jimmer" song on YouTube. There is even a blond BYU student singing him an acoustic Valentine ode that goes, "So baby come on over, be my point guard."

Heckling via Facebook

But technology can have a downside, too. San Diego State fans organized a massive Facebook onslaught on Fredette's girlfriend, BYU cheerleader Whitney Wonnacott. Students reportedly "poked" her 7,000 times on the site before the February 26 game in San Diego. SDSU student Brent Duclos designed and sold "I Poked Jimmer's Girlfriend" T-shirts.

"They honestly were just meant as good fun, and of course to try and get into Jimmer's head," said Duclos via e-mail.

Jimmer had a bit of an off day, scoring a mere 25, but the Cougars won and Fredette and Wonnacott simply shrugged off the hijinks. To a degree, that's part of college basketball and regionally part of playing for BYU. Some call the school the Duke of the West because of vitriol the school attracts from opposition -- love or hate, no middle ground.

Somehow, Fredette seems to buck that trend. He's heckled, to be sure, sometimes to classless degrees, but even opposing fans say they can't help but at least respect what he does. He's unflappable.

"For the most part, you always have to respect a talented player," said Duclos. "I've never seen as many off-axis, fade-away 3s in a career, let alone a season. That's why it gives him a bigger target on his back compared to his teammates."

The real test, however, comes closer to home in Salt Lake City, where Utah fans are bred to hate BYU and boo their players relentlessly.

"He's kind of that rare guy that even (University of Utah) Ute fans seem to appreciate what he's done, whereas (normally) most of them would just hate the guy simply because he puts on a BYU jersey," Drew said.

Kristin Ward, a 20-year-old University of Utah junior, isn't about to start rooting for Fredette, but recognizes his ability -- especially after Jimmer's monster 47-point performance at Utah's Huntsman Center earlier this season.

"It was hard to watch and I don't compliment BYU sports that often, but Jimmer's a really good player and it's interesting to watch a player that never misses and at the game against us, he never missed," she said. "He shot from everywhere and made it."


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