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BYU basketball: Sweet 16 would be big step for Cougars

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DENVER — It's a well-known fact that BYU owns a dubious NCAA record for being the team with the most NCAA Tournament appearances — 25 — without reaching the Final Four.

That's not all. The Cougars haven't even advanced to the Sweet 16 in 30 years, when Danny Ainge's heroics led them to the Elite Eight in 1981.

How rough has the Big Dance been? Last season BYU won its first tournament game since 1993, halting an eight-game NCAA Tournament losing streak.

This season, the Cougars have matched their highest seed ever, a No. 3; own their best 34-game record in program history; and boast the nation's leading scorer, and favorite to win national player of the year honors, in Jimmer Fredette.

In the opening round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, BYU meets No. 14 seed Wofford Thursday (5:15 p.m. MST, CBS) at the Pepsi Center.

Yet the Cougars (30-4) must play without suspended forward Brandon Davies, which means many observers view them as vulnerable.

For the past number of years, after seven one-and-done NCAA appearances, the most-asked question for BYU coaches and players at this time of year has been: When will you win an NCAA Tournament game? The Cougars ended their gut-wrenching drought with a thrilling double-overtime victory over Florida last March in Oklahoma City.

If nothing else, at least the Cougars don't have to hear to that question anymore. There's a different mindset.

"More than anything, just having the monkey off our back that we don't have to go in thinking, 'We have to win this,' " said senior guard Jackson Emery. "We can go in and play basketball, and just do our best and know that if we play our hardest, and we play our best, we're going to come out with a win."

Two wins — a trip to the Sweet 16 — would be a big step for this program.

Perhaps BYU is overdue for an extended NCAA Tournament stay in Fredette's final curtain call as a Cougar.

"It's been great to be in the NCAA Tournament all four years since I've been here," Fredette said. "That's what you want to do as a basketball player, get into the tournament and hopefully advance. We did that last year. Hopefully, we can advance even farther this year. We're looking forward to that. But at this point, senior year, it's do-or-die. I just have to play with those types of expectations and hopefully win games."

So, the new question is, what is it going to take for BYU to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament?

"Just play as hard as we can, shoot the ball well, really defend, rebound the basketball and get out in transition," Fredette said. "That's a big thing, to try to control the tempo so we can play BYU basketball, running and shooting the ball well."

Coach Dave Rose agreed, explaining that his team needs to play its fast-paced style, shoot the ball at a high percentage and crash the boards.

"It's really important that we get ourselves in a positive frame of mind and we make shots. We had some good looks at the basket (in last Saturday's loss to SDSU) but for whatever reason we had a hard time making them," he said. "This can be a really consistent offensive rebounding team. When we're in the right mindset, and playing with the right energy, we get a lot of second and third possessions with how active we are. Plus, with the way people guard Jimmer, they're spread out a lot. We need to take advantage of offensive rebounding opportunities. Then our ability to defend, either man-to-man or zone, we need to rebound out of those defenses and transition the ball."

All eyes, of course, will be on Fredette, who has become a household name around the country. People want to see if the senior from Glens Falls, N.Y., can carry his team through the Southeast Region bracket on his shoulders, similar to the way Stephen Curry guided Davidson to the Elite Eight three years ago.

By now, Fredette is accustomed to being the center of attention.

"I don't put any pressure on myself. I try to stay away from that," he said. "I don't worry about what other people's expectations are, just go out there and play my game and try to meet my expectations. Usually my expectations are even bigger than other people's expectations anyway. If I'm able to exceed my expectations, I'll exceed everyone else's as well."

Rose knows that Fredette can't help BYU advance all by himself.

"We all need to step up," Rose said. "It's a special time with a special feel, and so much attention. What's really important is to be able to deal with all that but then execute like you play. We've played 34 games. We need to play that 35th game with that same focus and preparation, even though it's on a different stage."

For the Cougars, there's a sense of urgency, knowing they need to be focused from the opening tip.

"(You) know you aren't just going to walk in there and win a game. You have to prepare yourself mentally and physically," Emery said. "Any team you play is going to be a good team. They've won their (conference) tournament or have won enough games to be in the (NCAA) tournament. You've got to be ready to go or any team can beat you."

Never mind the Final Four. For BYU, a journey to the Sweet 16 would be sweet, indeed.

e-mail: jeffc@desnews.com

Cougars on the air

No. 14 Wofford (21-12) vs. No. 3 BYU (30-4)

Thursday 5:15 p.m.

Pepsi Center, Denver


Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM