OMAHA, Nebraska — When Noah Waterman was growing up in a small town between Syracuse and Rochester, New York, and just getting into organized basketball as a tall, gangly eighth grader, he would occasionally hear teammates and competitors use the word “Jimmer” as a noun, a verb and everything in between.

“People would say, ‘He’s on a Jimmer,’ or ‘I’m going to Jimmer this game,’ or ‘That is Jimmer range.’ I had no idea who or what they were even talking about. I was pretty new to basketball.”

—  BYU forward Noah Waterman

“People would say, ‘He’s on a Jimmer,’ or ‘I’m going to Jimmer this game,’ or ‘That is Jimmer range,’” Waterman said. “I had no idea who or what they were even talking about. I was pretty new to basketball.”

And totally unfamiliar with the school where the former Glens Falls, New York, product Jimmer Fredette did his thing and became famous, Brigham Young University.

But just look at Waterman now. He’s almost finished with his second year at BYU, plans to return for a third, having received a medical redshirt waiver from the NCAA a few weeks ago for a sixth season of college basketball, and has helped the 23-10 Cougars make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2021.

“My journey has turned into a pretty good story, hasn’t it?” Waterman said last month. “I’m just extremely grateful.”

It’s not quite as spellbinding as Jimmer’s story — Fredette’s hometown of Glens Falls and Waterman’s hometown of Savannah are about 200 miles apart — but heartwarming nevertheless, considering Waterman was raised by a single mother, Kim, has nine siblings, and has improved as much, if not more, than any player on coach Mark Pope’s team.

After averaging 4.6 points and 2.8 rebounds per game last year, Waterman is averaging 9.8 points and 5.6 rebounds this season, and is a key ingredient for the No. 21 Cougars and one of the reasons why they earned the No. 5 seed in last week’s Big 12 tournament.

BYU garnered a No. 6 seed in the Big Dance and will meet No. 11 seed Duquesne in a first-round game Thursday at 10:40 a.m. at Omaha’s CHI Health Center Arena, home of the Creighton Bluejays.

“I’m stoked,” Waterman said last Wednesday after scoring nine points and grabbing five rebounds in BYU’s 87-73 win over UCF in Kansas City. “It’s a dream come true to play in the NCAAs.”

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He added eight points and five boards in Thursday’s 81-67 Big 12 quarterfinal loss to Texas Tech. He has made 55 3-pointers this season in 30 games this year, after canning 30 triples in 33 appearances last year.

“Noah has improved so much,” said teammate Fousseyni Traore. “Noah has been a different guy. Like, of course we saw him last year and he came back this year and was like, was more physical. Everything is better. He just plays harder, and he wants it more this year than he did last year. He’s been helping us big-time for sure.”

Every player on the roster has improved, which is a big reason why BYU is in the Big Dance this year, after going 19-15 last year and failing to get any postseason opportunities with roughly the same team. But Waterman’s leap has been the most extraordinary.

“The jump that he has taken on the court, off the court, has been huge,” said senior guard Spencer Johnson. “He is taking care of everything academically, taken care of everything in his life. That has really translated to the court. He has defended really well, he is shooting really well. He is a big part of our team. We really need him.”

Pope said he still remembers the day that the 6-foot-11 Waterman vowed to improve and not repeat a 2022-23 season where he often looked overwhelmed, out of sorts and even disinterested at times.

“One of the greatest things ever as a coach is when a player just makes the decision that he is going to change,” Pope said. “It was almost in a day. He just woke up one day and said he was going to approach this differently. He did it with his urgency. He did it with his off-court life. He did it with his academic life. He did it with building relationships with his teammates. I wish I could take some credit for it, but I can’t.”

Waterman boosted his field-goal shooting percentage from 36% to 45% and his 3-point percentage from 32% to 37%. Perhaps his greatest improvement has been at the free throw line; he’s gone from 54% (19 of 35) to 80% (46 of 57).

“Make shots or not, put up 20 or put up two, he is a different human being right now, and it is super cool,” Pope said. “It is his own doing. He just got to a point where he said, ‘all right, I am going to do this differently and approach this differently.’ He is reaping the rewards right now.”

Waterman acknowledges that he had “a bad season” his first year in Provo, for a variety of reasons. Practices were different, and harder, than they were at his previous stops, Niagara and Detroit Mercy. School was difficult. Living so far away from home wasn’t easy, either.

Cougars on the air

No. 6 seed BYU (23-10)

vs. No. 11 seed Duquesne (24-11)

  • Thursday, 10:40 a.m. MDT
  • CHI Health Center Arena
  • Omaha, Nebraska
  • TV: TruTV
  • Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM

“At the end of last season, it just clicked,” he said. “My family was like, ‘Dang, what happened?’ Then it was like a light bulb went off and it clicked in my head. I had to get in the gym more. I had to really just lock in on my defensive and offensive assignments and everything like that, because I didn’t want that to happen again.”

Some fans have started calling the fifth-year senior who will graduate in April with a degree in communication “Rain Man” — a reference to his first and last names and his propensity to hit 3-pointers in bunches, raining them down on opponents.

“I haven’t heard too many people call me that, but I definitely like it,” Waterman said.

He said the entire team is close, which has helped in his improvement. His roommates are Jaxson Robinson and Atiki Ally Atiki, buddies who have also helped him flourish in his second year in Provo.

“I think it all started with our summer trip to Italy,” he said. “We really grew together and as a team. I think it really shows a lot on the court. Because we have the chemistry on the court and I think it just rolls over to all aspects of our lives.”

BYU head coach Mark Pope, right, reacts as BYU forward Noah Waterman heads to the bench during game against Kansas State, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Manhattan, Kan.
BYU head coach Mark Pope, right, reacts as BYU forward Noah Waterman heads to the bench during game against Kansas State, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Manhattan, Kan. | Colin E. Braley, Associated Press