PROVO — Without question, it will go down as one of the best, and most memorable, seasons in BYU basketball history.
It just may take a little while for the Cougars to truly appreciate what they accomplished.
"We're proud of what we've done, but the loss is in the back of our minds," freshman Kyle Collinsworth said after BYU's heartbreaking 83-74 overtime defeat to Florida in the Sweet 16 Thursday night in New Orleans. "I'm sure in a week or two we'll be able to see how special this team and this season was."
The Cougars (32-5) won a school-record 32 games, took their first trip to the Sweet 16 in 30 years, spent numerous weeks ranked in the top 10 — peaking at No. 3 — won the Mountain West Conference regular-season championship in their final year in the league, and matched their highest seed ever, No. 3, in the NCAA Tournament.
Along the way, Jimmermania swept the country.
BYU senior Jimmer Fredette led the nation in scoring (averaging 28.9 points per game), and turned into a one-name rock star, captivating the basketball world with a relentless will to score. Many of his made-for-SportsCenter highlights, in which he exhibited an array of acrobatic shots, an ankle-busting cross-over and jaw-dropping range, will live forever on YouTube.
Fredette surpassed Danny Ainge as the school's career scoring leader (2,589 points) and he played a part of more victories (112) than any player in school history. It was almost fitting that against the Gators, in Fredette's final game as a Cougar, his scoring output matched his jersey number — 32 — and also equaled the number of victories BYU earned this season.
"Winning games. That's his legacy," said coach Dave Rose. "He just helped his team find ways to win games."
Fredette, who has been named the national player of the year by several prominent publications, became the face of college basketball as celebrities like President Barack Obama and NBA star Kevin Durant praised Fredette's play. His name, and game, inspired numerous musical and poster-board tributes, as well as introduced new phrases ("You got Jimmered!) into the sports lexicon.
Of course, the Cougars dealt with significant adversity, too, losing sophomore forward Brandon Davies to an honor code violation at the most critical juncture of the season — March. That stunning news resulted in a torrent of national headlines and commentaries about the school's stringent honor code, and how the suspension would affect BYU's NCAA Tournament hopes.
Without Davies, the Cougars won two games in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1981.
"It's been everything we wanted to achieve," said senior guard Jackson Emery of the season. "A lot of people doubted us and our ability, and (because of the) things we've gone through, they didn't think we could accomplish those things. It shows something about those guys, that we're going to fight hard every day and practice hard."
BYU players say they didn't spend much time thinking about what-might-have-been scenarios involving Davies.
"It's basketball. You lose guys," Emery said. "You can't speculate or think about those kind of things. You just think about the opportunities you had with this team and we did a terrific job."
"I think that their competitive spirit, this group, they're just tough," Rose said. "They all have a different personality of toughness, but the bottom line is that they're competitors, and they want to win and they trust each other and they play together."
Rose was grateful for the contributions, and leadership, of his three seniors — Fredette, Emery and Logan Magnusson.
"Jimmer's ability to make shots late in the game, Jackson's ability to defend and rebound and make winning plays consistently, Logan's ability to come in and just give you whatever you need to win a game," Rose said.
The season began with plenty of promise as Fredette was named to multiple All-America teams. Not only did he live up to the hype, he exceeded it.
In December, Fredette returned to his hometown of Glens Falls, N.Y., for an emotional homecoming game against Vermont. Once Mountain West Conference play began, Fredette took his game to another level. He scored 39 points, including seven 3-pointers, in leading the Cougars to a victory at UNLV, snapping an eight-game losing streak to the Rebels at the Thomas & Mack Center. Less than a week later, he exploded for 47 points against arch-rival Utah, hitting a 40-foot shot at the first-half buzzer.
Fredette enjoyed a 42-point outing at Colorado State. Then came a 43-point barrage during what was billed as the biggest regular-season game in MWC history — the first meeting between two top-10 teams — in a win over No. 4 San Diego State in late-January at the Marriott Center.
BYU knocked off the Aztecs again, in San Diego, in late February, as four Cougars scored in double figures.
Days later came Davies' suspension, weakening BYU's confidence, depth and inside game. The shell-shocked Cougars lost at home to New Mexico, but rebounded to defeat Wyoming in the regular-season finale and claim their fourth conference championship in five years.
In the MWC Tournament semifinals against New Mexico, Fredette poured in a single-game school-record 52 points and, in the same contest, broke the school's career scoring mark as BYU avenged two regular-season losses to the Lobos.
BYU entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed, its highest seed since 1980. After an opening-round victory over Wofford in Denver, the shorthanded, smaller Cougars were widely regarded as an underdog against No. 11-seeded Gonzaga. But BYU turned in one of its best performances of the season, knocking down 14 3-pointers en route to a 22-point blowout and its first Sweet 16 berth in 30 years.
The storybook season drew to a close in the Sweet 16 against Florida. But for the Cougars, there are memories to last a lifetime.
As for Fredette's future plans?
"Hopefully, I'll be able to play at the next level, in the NBA," he said Thursday. "That's the dream. I'm looking forward to being able to work out and get drafted and make a team."
And how does he want to be remembered?
"I want to be remembered as a good person first, someone my teammates enjoyed being around and the fans enjoyed watching," Fredette said. "Hopefully, the legacy of myself and my team will be remembered for years to come. We still had a great run into the Sweet 16. We'll always remember that."