PROVO — Leaning on the star player's unique and special skills or sharing the wealth among a host of talented players is the balancing act the BYU Cougars face every game.
More than once this season the Cougars have taken a victory ride on the shoulders of junior guard Jimmer Fredette, who earns praise regularly from coaches around the Mountain West Conference and the nation for his late-game abilities. His knack for almost single-handedly taking down opponents has him the clear frontrunner as the MWC player of the year.
However, when the Cougars are at their best — like in last Saturday's 43-point blowout of Air Force — everyone gets into the act. But, there's also no denying that Fredette is most dangerous when the basketball is in his hands, and opponents spend a lot of defensive effort trying to get the ball out of his hands.
Therein lies the balancing act, or dilemma, the 23-3 Cougars face as they head down the finishing stretch to a very successful season and try to win a fourth-straight MWC regular-season title.
"Jimmer likes to have the ball in his hand and he's really good with the ball in his hand, and that's a little bit different than how we play," BYU coach Dave Rose said. "We really like to kind of spread the ball around and move. Trying to get that mix of sharing the ball and then using Jimmer's special skills to help us finish off and win games is quite a challenge. But I think the guys are adjusting well, and I think that if Jimmer keeps playing the way he's playing that things will be fine."
The key is in how the coaching staff adjusts to how teams decide to defend the Cougars, and the decisions Fredette makes on the court. "It's a little challenging, but I just try to take what the defense gives you," Fredette said. "I can kind of feel around, and if I feel like I need to go and score the basketball, that's what I'm going to do. If I feel like our team is not getting the scores or touches that we need, I'll go and try to be aggressive and try to go to the basket." In Saturday's rout of Air Force, the Cougars had five players who took between six and 10 shots each, and those five players combined to shoot 25-of-40 and score 70 points. Fredette took the fewest shots in that group (six) but dished out a game-high six assists with only one turnover.
"It was a great game for us. Everyone was involved and everyone was shooting the ball really well," Fredette said. "I'm glad to be a distributor and get those guys involved if that's the way it needs to be."
And games like the one Saturday force teams to pay attention to every Cougar on the floor, and not just Fredette.
"You can't just guard me on this team. We have a lot of good players on this team who can shoot the ball and make good plays for themselves and their teammates. I'm just one of many of them. So if they're going to put their whole defensive plan around me, they got a lot of guys to deal with," Fredette said.
A move back up in the rankings: With Saturday's 91-48 win over Air Force, the Cougars moved up three spots in the new ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll to No. 14 and up one spot to No. 16 in the new AP men's basketball poll. It's the seventh straight week that BYU has been ranked.
"It is nice to know you're in there and have been in there awhile, and have that kind of respect around the country," coach Rose said.
In the coaches' poll, the Cougars are ranked one spot ahead of Mountain West Conference foe New Mexico, which holds down the 15th spot. In the AP poll, however, the Lobos are ranked No. 12 — the highest ranking of any team in the West. The UNLV Rebels, with losses last week to New Mexico and San Diego State, dropped out of the Top 25 in both polls.
Freshman of the year? As good of season as BYU freshman guard Tyler Haws is having — averaging about 12 points and five rebounds per game — it appears the two-time Utah Mr. Basketball from Lone Peak High is chasing San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard for the MWC freshman of the year award. Leonard, named Monday as the MWC player of the week for the second time, has 12 double-doubles on the year.
On another note, according to family members, Haws is close to submitting his papers for an LDS Church mission and hopes to leave before May so when he returns in two years he'll have a few months to get back in basketball shape before his sophomore season begins.