With every passing BYU failure in the NCAA Tournament, the respective legends of Danny Ainge and Jimmer Fredette only grow larger in Cougar lore. Ainge led the Cougars to the 1981 Elite Eight and Fredette carried BYU to the Sweet 16 in 2011.

Outside of those towering two years, the Cougars have had nothing but shortcomings since the tournament expanded to 32 teams in 1975. It doesn’t matter if BYU is the higher or lower seed, the favorite or the underdog. The results are the same — early exits.

In the modern years without an Ainge or Fredette, BYU is 5-20 in the Big Dance with 12 first-round exits, including the last five. After another quick departure last week, fans are again scratching their heads.

Related
Duquesne makes BYU’s offense disappear, puts an end to Cougars’ magical season in ‘devastating’ NCAA Tournament loss

What gives? Why do the Cougars show up flat in tournaments? Why do they let their opponents set the tone physically? Why must they fall far behind before firing up? Why can’t the stars who shined all season keep shining in the postseason? Why? Why? Why?

It will be up to the coaching staff and the returning players to figure that out for next season, but BYU’s tournament trouble may say more about Ainge and Fredette than it does about the program as a whole. Those two had something special that made them different and keeps them different.

Ainge was a three-sport All-American out of Oregon who only took a recruiting trip to BYU on the urging of a visiting church official who was speaking in the Eugene area during his senior year of high school. Ainge saw and felt something that pulled him to Provo.

His Cougar career culminated in the historic 1981 NCAA Tournament, where sixth-seeded BYU topped (11) Princeton 60-51 in the first round. Ainge scored 21 points. The victory put the Cougars up against (3) UCLA, a team that stopped recruiting Ainge after they told him he wasn’t fast enough to play in their conference.

BYU's Danny Ainge drives past Notre Dame's John Paxson in the second half of action in Atlanta during the NCAA Tournament, March 20, 1981. Thanks to Ainge's late-game heroics, the Cougars prevailed to advance to the Elite Eight. | Associated Press

Ainge responded by running circles around the Bruins on national television. He scored 37 points in a Saturday-afternoon 78-55 dismantling of UCLA that caught everybody’s attention and sent BYU soaring into the Sweet 16.

Second-seed Notre Dame met up with the Cougars in Atlanta’s East Regional semifinals, where Ainge delivered the most iconic play in program history — driving coast-to-coast to score the game-winning layup to stun the Irish, 51-50.

In the Elite Eight, BYU ran into No. 1 seed Virginia and 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson. Ainge led the Cougars with 13 points, but Sampson’s 22 points and 12 rebounds proved too much. Virginia eliminated BYU 74-60, sending the Cougars home from a place in the tournament that they have never returned.

Twenty-five years after Ainge made his last basket at BYU, the Cougars signed Jimmer Fredette out of Glens Falls, New York. Fredette had only one other scholarship offer when he accepted the invitation from coach Dave Rose.

As a freshman reserve, Fredette scored 10 points in No. 8 seed BYU’s first-round defeat to No. 9 seed Texas A&M, 67-62. The following year, as a starter, he scored 18 in BYU’s 79-66 first-round loss to the (9) Aggies.

In 2010, Fredette scored 32 to carry (7) BYU past (10) Florida 99-92 in double overtime. Two days later, Fredette had 21 in an 84-72 loss to (2) Kansas State.

At this point, and on the cusp of Jimmermania becoming a national thing, Fredette was ready to peak in the 2011 postseason. Against (No. 14) Wofford, he opened the tournament with 32 points in third-seeded BYU’s 74-68 win.

Related
First-round exit leaves the Cougars scratching their heads — and searching their souls

The following Saturday, Fredette closed the book on (No. 10 seed) Gonzaga’s annual Cinderella story with 34 points in an offensive display that had CBS salivating for more. The Cougars routed the Zags 89-67 to advance to the Sweet 16 in New Orleans.

Florida was a solid No. 2 seed and after getting beat by BYU the year before, the Gators were ready for Fredette, and they battered him from start to finish. Fredette finished the game with a bandage on his chin, a sore calf and 32 points as BYU’s only player in double figures. The Gators sent the Cougars home with an 83-74 overtime defeat, ending Fredette’s three-game scoring spree of 98 points.

“Winning games, that’s his legacy,” Rose told the media at the famous New Orleans Superdome. “He helped his team find ways to win games.”

BYU won 32 games during Fredette’s senior season — the most in program history. Their trip to the Sweet 16 was the first since Ainge’s senior year in 1981 — and the last.

No true competitor ever wants to lose, and the Cougars have had plenty of valiant souls suit up over the last four decades, but these two wanted to lose less than the others — and they played like it. They backed down to no one. If someone pushed Ainge or Fredette, they pushed back. They showed up in tournaments with their game faces on and, as a result, their teammates showed up too.

Ainge couldn’t have reached the Elite Eight without fellow starters Fred Roberts, Greg Kite, Steve Trumbo, Steve Craig and the reserves on the bench, but they couldn’t have defeated Princeton, UCLA and Notre Dame without him.

Related
Duquesne physically throws BYU out of NCAA Tournament’s first round

Fredette needed Jackson Emery, Kyle Collinsworth, Noah Hartsock, Charles Obouo and his own reserves to take down Wofford and Gonzaga and to compete against Florida. His teammates needed Fredette to remain on the march.

It’s no coincidence that Ainge ended his career as the National Player of the Year and BYU’s all-time leading scorer. When Fredette was done, he too was named National Player of the Year and the Cougars’ all-time scoring leader, after breaking Ainge’s record on a magical 52-point night against New Mexico in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

These kinds of players are tough to find and every coach in the land is out looking for them, including BYU. As of today, most of this year’s 23-11 team will be back next season except for Spencer Johnson and possibly Jaxson Robinson.

The Cougars might lose a few others, but they will add a few pieces from the mission field (Collin Chandler), the training room (Dawson Baker) and the high school ranks (Isaac Davis). They will search the transfer portal too, trying to bring in anyone who can help them return to the NCAA Tournament and survive the opening weekend.

Whether they evolve into an Ainge or Fredette remains to be seen. But those two legends are the prototypes the Cougars need to win and advance — a player or two who is better than the others but will still give everything they have. Not only do they refuse to lose, but they inspire their teammates to play harder, tougher and with the same kind of postseason fight that Duquesne used to knock them out.

The fact that BYU hasn’t been able to find the next Ainge or Fredette for this long may say more about those two players than it does about whoever is doing the recruiting. They are different, and years after their last baskets, Ainge and Fredette still stand alone as the two most impactful players in BYU’s modern tournament history, and they will stay that way until someone comes along with the talent and tenacity to join them.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is a play-by-play announcer and show host for BYUtv/ESPN+. He co-hosts “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com and is the author of the children’s book “C is for Cougar,” available at deseretbook.com.