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BYU basketball: Cougars will need 3 to beat ‘Zags

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DENVER — The distance is 20.75 feet or 6.2 meters.

It is what you get when you pull out the tape and tick off the lines and numbers from the painted stripe to the center of the hoop and net.

It is the measure of BYU's future in the NCAA Tournament, the 3-point shot.

This is a time for the Cougars to find that range. Do or die.

Many people see the Cougars as a bright fading light. Once a flashy, brilliant bulb that's lost its luster since the university suspended Brandon Davies.

Folks see Jimmer Fredette as a star whose meteoric tail has streaked across the sky and eyes have followed in awe. But it's an incandescent anomaly headed for a fade to black if he doesn't get offensive help from sidekicks who now struggle to make 3s.

But Fredette has a mantra, some advice.

"My brother and family have always taught me when it comes to shooting to have short-term memory loss," said Fredette Friday. "That last shot doesn't matter any more, it's all about the next one."

Threes: It's a staple of the Cougar guard-oriented attack. It is the fuel in the booster tank that rocketed BYU to a No. 3 ranking back on Feb. 28.

It's chemistry, confidence, defenses caught off balance and a little luck. It can come; it can fade.

Indeed, since that glorious night the Cougars manhandled No. 4 San Diego State in Viejas Arena Feb. 26, a night for all intents and purposes that salted away the Mountain West title, it is like BYU took a big sigh of relief. Said "whew" and began an act of repose.

Three-point shooting coasted to a state of mental inertia.

Consider the Cougars from distance since that passionate title-trophy SDSU win:

Jimmer Fredette, a career 39 percent 3-point shooter, is 20 of 59 after making 4 of 8 that night. That is 33 percent, or a dip of six percentage points.

Noah Hartsock, a career 40 percent shooter from distance, went 3 for 4 from the arc against SDSU but is 2 of 13 (15 percent) since and his two treys came against Wofford. Before that, in BYU's previous five games, he went 0 for 10 since post duties without Davies fell heavily on his shoulders.

Charles Abouo, who had a spectacular 4-for-5 effort from 3-point range that night at SDSU, is a career 35 percent shooter from 3-point land but is 3 for 17 in the last six games for 16 percent.

Jackson Emery, whose outstanding defensive skills have saved BYU for most of the last six games, went 2 for 6 against the Aztecs that championship night. He is a career 38 percent shooter from distance. Since then, he is 12 for 41 as the shooting guard alongside Fredette, an accuracy rate of 29 percent.

You can understand Hartsock. He left his comfort zone as a freelancer to a must-have post player on offense and defense without Davies.

You forgive Emery because he's having the best defensive season of any Cougar since Marty Haws.

Jimmer will be Jimmer.

The X-factor is Abouo, who, for all his energy and effort in the opening minutes against Wofford, found himself on the bench in foul trouble. Still, his 3 for 17 from long range in the last six games is a hurdle; the athletic junior can really help his team tonight.

"You have to be ready to shoot when you have the opportunity," said Abouo. "We have a lot of shooters, it's been easy because you get a lot of confidence from other guys and the coaches. We run great sets and get each other good shots."

It gets old pointing it out, but if the Cougars make at least 10 from distance against Gonzaga, they should win and advance to the Sweet 16 in New Orleans. This is a team that has converted double digit 3-pointers in games 10 times — about a third of all games the Cougars have played this season.

This is a team that knocked down 14 bombs at UNLV on Jan. 5 and another 14 on Utah's court six days later.

This is a squad that hit a season high 15 treys on the road at Air Force, a slow-down, hold-it team, and bombed in 14 long-range shots at San Diego State in a pressure-filled road game against one of the nation's best teams just 22 days ago.

"I think it's just being confident," said Hartsock. " If you miss one shot, step up and make the next."

Physically, there is no reason BYU can't hit a flurry of killer 3-point shots. All ligaments, tendons and muscles inside player arms and wrists appear to be just fine. These are young men and they are not all that tired with two days rest.

So, this dip, this drought since Feb. 26, has to be mental. This is a BYU team that's wrestled with the stress of issues, none more disrupting than the loss of Davies and an unprecedented assault of mass media attention the past month.

Things add up. Tolls are taken.

Nobody knows this better than the players.

Said Jimmer, "I think the stuff off the court is what puts pressure on you on the court. Everybody on the outside — either the media or people on the outside — are telling you what you should be doing, they expect you to do great things every single night."

If they could have spent Friday on couches with bifocal-wearing shrinks, they'd have done it.

They know today is the opportunity of a lifetime, playing alongside a once-in-a-lifetime teammate.

Tick, tick, tick.

And even just piles more mental pressure.

"I know expectations are there," Fredette said. "I try not to think about it. I also have high expectations for myself and for our team. If you look at it that way, you're trying to do it for yourself; you're not trying to do it for anybody else outside of that.

"If you have that mentality, you don't think about the pressures. That's my approach."

Indeed, if BYU stays alive tonight and beyond, it is simple.

The toughest work is between the collective ears of Dave Rose's players.

And that's about an average seven-inch hat size.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com

twitter: Harmonwrites