Among the flurry of rivalry games and games that saw lower ranked teams overcoming higher ranked teams this past weekend, one matchup pitted two top-10 schools against each other in a contest that featured some “non-traditional” powers that have risen to the upper echelons of college basketball this season. The BYU Cougars, led by player of the year candidate Jimmer Fredette, went on the road to meet the San Diego State Aztecs, with the teams playing not only for bragging rights this year, but potentially for a shot at a #1 tournament seeding, especially given the recent losses of other teams near the top of the rankings.
The Cougars prevailed in the game as the lower ranked team, and as a result both teams found themselves with the same season record as our own Buckeyes at 27-2. The game represented a big win on the road for BYU, and a disappointing loss for San Diego State, who lost to BYU earlier in the season to record their first L of the year. The matchup was intriguing in that the two clubs play significantly different styles, and in the end it was the outside shooting of the Cougars that proved to be the more effective strong suit.
Truly it was a shooting clinic for BYU. Fredette led all scorers with 25 points, which included four 3-pointers, and teammate Charles Abouo posted 18 points, knocking down four three’s of his own. The Aztecs only led when the score was 2-0, and every time SDSU made a bid to draw even another BYU three-pointer would rain down to extend the lead once again. The Cougars also shot over 85% from the foul line. Kawhi Leonard led the way for San Diego State with 17 points and 13 boards.
Looking at the Aztecs first, one is reminded of a team like Missouri. They have a bunch of good all-around players who seem to have gelled as a team, and they are best when driving to the rim and taking advantage of their athleticism. The SDSU squad is not an outside shooting team. They are most effective getting into the lane and opening up opportunities around the basket, particularly for Leonard, a star sophomore, and senior Malcolm Thomas, a 6’9 forward.
It was a great atmosphere in the home gym for San Diego State, and frequently throughout the game it seemed like they clearly had momentum. But despite SDSU standing out as the more aggressive team, a glance at the scoreboard always revealed that BYU maintained the lead. The Aztecs could make an occasional mini-run, and at times demonstrated an ability to lock down the Cougars on defense, but it was inconsistent, and BYU seemed to take advantage of every lapse.
Ohio State could likely play San Diego State’s type of game very naturally. The Aztecs play primarily in the paint, but to some extent this depends on their success at getting around defenders on the perimeter. With strong defenders at our guard positions, Ohio State could find that they are effective at shutting down SDSU’s main strength. It would not be a bad strategy to let SDSU prove they can beat you from the outside before committing to tight man defense beyond the arc. Running with the Aztecs would not be an issue, and the only true danger I could see would be if Leonard gets it going on the offensive glass for second chance points and fouls on our big men.
In contrast to San Diego State, BYU is a team that will simply shoot you out of the gym, especially from downtown. Make no mistake – this is not a one-man show. Fredette gets the hype, for good reason, but the Cougars have a variety of weapons that will knock down the open jumper. In fact, in Saturday’s game Fredette nearly recorded a double-double, notching 9 assists to his teammates. While Fredette is the focal point of the offense, it could easily be another BYU player that beats the opponent on any given night.
This was the first time I had really had a chance to watch Fredette this season, so some comments seem warranted. He has no problem with giving up the rock to a teammate, but his teammates always look for him when the double comes or when they get stuck, and as a result he usually ends up with the ball back in his hands. Fredette has great range on his shot, and can pull up for bombs from downtown even when he isn’t totally set. He is so dangerous because he hits the three like Jon Diebler, but can do it off the dribble from awkward angles. You can’t give him any room, and at times SDSU took chances that hurt them. On one play in particular, the Aztec player decided to stick on Fredette in the backcourt after scoring on a possession, attempting to prevent Fredette from receiving the inbounds pass. Fredette broke free, got down the court, and as the SDSU defender caught up he drifted past Fredette just enough that he wasn’t close enough when Fredette pulled up from beyond the arc. There is little room for error, and going for the steal against BYU should be used sparingly given the potential consequences for a failed attempt.
BYU is the more concerning team when looking at a matchup with Ohio State. Their big men could draw Sullinger and Lauderdale away from the basket, and their outside shooting ability could lead to repeated drives to the hoop if our bigs can’t move their feet quickly enough. The Cougars also play intelligent basketball, working the ball around with crisp passing to find open shots. While trying to out-fundamental a team like Duke could prove disastrous, it may be the right approach against BYU. Getting their team in foul trouble by exploiting mismatches (Lighty and Buford post-ups, Sullinger against anyone) could be an effective strategy in that the Cougars only used an 8-man rotation and didn’t necessarily have to contend with an offense that ran through one person consistently when playing SDSU.
Despite their impressive play, I would be surprised to see BYU in a #1 seed on Selection Sunday. If they win their conference tournament, which will likely be another matchup with San Diego State, they would be a deserving team for a top spot in the bracket, but otherwise a team like Kansas or even Duke would be the better choice based on strength of schedule and versatility.