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SALT LAKE CITY — Most fans won't remember this, but we oldtimers recall when the Utah basketball team found itself in a similar predicament as the BYU team is facing heading into the NCAA Tournament.
Back in 1966, Utah was having a very good season and heading to the NCAA Tournament when it lost its third-leading scorer, forward George Fisher, to a freak broken leg in the third-to-last regular season game on Feb. 26 against New Mexico.
After losing a subsequent game to BYU by 15 points without Fisher, Utah regrouped with star player Jerry Chambers taking on an increased scoring load and made it through the Western Regionals and into the NCAA Final Four. Chambers ended up with a 28.7 scoring average that year and was MVP of the Final Four.
This year, BYU lost its top inside player, third-leading scorer Brandon Davies, with two regular-season games left to an honor code violation. His last game was on Feb. 26 against San Diego State.
The Cougars lost their first game without Davies by 18 points before righting the ship with three straight victories. Their star player, Jimmer Fredette, has had to increase his scoring load and now averages 28.5 points per game.
While the reasons for losing top players are different, the circumstances of the two teams 45 years apart are eerily similar.
One big difference between 1966 and now, is that Utah had to win just two games to get to the Final Four, while now it takes four victories. For BYU to match Utah's feat of a Final Four run in 1966 without a top player is tough, but perhaps the Cougars can at least match Utah's two NCAA victories and make it to the Sweet 16.
POY RACE: Although many folks have already anointed Fredette as the National Player of the Year, I was starting to wonder if UConn's Kemba Walker was closing the gap with his spectacular week in the Big East Conference Tournament, where he led his ninth-seeded team to the championship with five victories in five days.
It looked like Fredette was wearing down, not shooting above 50 percent in any game since late January and averaging 4.4 turnovers per game. However, Fredette was unbelievable Friday night when he scored 52 points on 22 of 37 from the field, which vaulted him to the top of the list again.
I think Walker will get a lot of votes from the Eastern press and basketball purists who believe a Big East player must be better than a player from the Mountain West. But I'm betting Fredette will win most of the Player of the Year awards, including the Wooden Award, this over the next few weeks.
MORE JIMMER: Thanks to his 106-point outburst at the MWC Tournament, Fredette is on the verge of becoming the No. 1 all-time scorer in the state's history.
During his 52-point explosion the other night, Fredette passed Danny Ainge to become the all-time leading BYU scorer. With the 30 points he scored Saturday night, Fredette moved up to 2,501 career points.
The only two players ahead of him are Utah State's Jaycee Carroll with 2,522 points and Utah's Keith Van Horn with 2,542.
If BYU plays at least two games in the NCAA tourney, he should break Van Horn's mark easily.
U. NEEDS A NAME COACH: Even though I suggested a couple of weeks ago that Jim Boylen should get another year at Utah, I wasn't at all surprised that he got canned on Saturday. Sports is all about what have you done lately, and Boylen hadn't done enough lately with two straight losing seasons.
I just hope Chris Hill has a pretty good coach already up his sleeve and isn't searching around the country for the next two or three weeks trying to come up with a suitable replacement. Although I think Weber State's Randy Rahe or Colorado State's Tim Miles could both be good choices, I imagine Hill is going to have to bring in a bigger name, preferably someone with western or Utah ties to satisfy the spoiled Ute fan base.
NCAA SHAFTS USU AGAIN: Finally, a word about the NCAA brackets. I think it's about time to blow up the NCAA committee and just let ESPN's Joe Lunardi do the picking for the NCAA Tournament.
Utah State, with a 30-3 record as a 12 seed? Are you kidding me? Lunardi had USU as a No. 8 seed. I guess the Aggies have to go undefeated to climb out of the 12th spot they get every year.
How about George Mason as an 8 seed? Villanova a 9 seed? Michigan (20-13) an 8 seed? Michigan State with a 19-14 record even in the tournament?
BYU got what it deserved as a No. 3 seed, but I really thought the committee might drop them to a 4 seed.
I will give the NCAA committee credit for this: They kept Utah State and BYU as close to home as possible this year.
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