Brad Rock: Jimmermania: Marriott Center a House of (Cougar) Blues for Aztecs
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
PROVO — The Marriott Center was quaking — in a good way — Wednesday night. You could hear the clamor in Panguitch.
The House of (Cougar) Blues had struck: deafening noise, fans trying to storm the court, security on high alert.
Since when did it get this crazy? You'd have to go back to the 1980s, when college basketball still ruled in Utah and BYU basketball was a big draw.
When things were a lot like they are now.
Wednesday at the Marriott Center, the No. 9-ranked Cougars stopped No. 4 San Diego State 71-58 in a game the looked a lot like you-know-when: the glory years. It has been exactly 30 years since Danny Ainge took the Cougars to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, and doggone if things don't look familiar. There's a baby-faced All-America guard who has caught the nation's attention, a complimentary sidekick (Steve Craig then, Jackson Emery now) and a ton of quality help.
Plus a fan base that just can't get enough.
"There are two commonalities," said Athletic Director Tom Holmoe, who was playing football at BYU in 1981, when Ainge starred. "First is that both teams had a great player — Danny and Jimmer (Fredette). And second, the fans know the other players. But those two guys are crowd-pleasers. Everybody wants to see those guys."
Whether this is the greatest BYU team ever can't be decided until the NCAA Tournament. Ainge's 1980-81 team played six ranked teams — three in the post-season — winning four. But none was ranked as high as SDSU this year. The '81 Cougars never rose above No. 15 in the polls and lost seven games.
The 1987-88 Cougars began the year 17-0, rising to a No. 2 ranking, only to lose to Alabama-Birmingham and go 9-6 down the stretch.
This year's Cougars, though, seem to have lasting power. They're as persistent as a toothache. They just wear teams out. For a minute, opponents appear in the game, then they're down by 10 or 15. Game over.
In one sense, the term "game over" was a relief. The buildup was almost unbearable. Fans camped out for tickets, literally. Radio, TV and newspaper reports dominated this week's news. It featured the two highest-ranked opponents ever in the Marriott Center.
Predictably, the crowd was nuts.
That's how it used to be almost every night, 30 years ago — except for the students dressed in Blue Man Group costumes. Oh, and the rap routine Fredettte's brother performed in front of the student section two hours before tipoff.
But as the years passed, crowds dwindled and soon 23,000 became 15,000 or 17,000, even on good years — which by national average is still impressive. Yet that was one big thing about Wednesday. The house was packed to the pigeon roosts. Cougar Fever, which has been growing since last season, had returned with a vengeance. And with good reason. The 20-1 start is BYU's best since the 1987-88 team.
How much devotion does this year's team command?
It's positively religious-like.
The first half wasn't necessarily art. There were early turnovers by both teams. But neither seemed terribly intimidated. The lights went up, the stars scored, the show went forward. Fredette was phenomenal (43 points) and SDSU's Kawhi Leonard was excellent (22 points), especially considering he was sick enough to have be hooked to an IV before the game.
The only thing that could have made things more colorful was a half-court shot. It wasn't for lack of trying. Fredette launched a 60-footer at the halftime buzzer, but even he couldn't convert that. The Aztecs led 31-30 at the break.
The Cougars didn't start inching away until the 12-minute mark when Emery stole the ball and dunked on a breakaway for a 52-46 lead. Fredette made five straight free throws down the stretch to boost BYU's lead to 13.
It was party time at the Y.
"If there's a better crowd, I'd like to see it," said BYU coach Dave Rose. "I don't know how it could get any better."
Is this the best BYU team ever? Time and the NCAA Tournament will tell. However, Wednesday's game did prove a couple of things. First, that the Cougars are serious about their ranking. And second, the Marriott Center is doing what we all wish we could do: Looking as good as it did 30 years ago.
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