Ask die-hard college basketball fans about the most memorable performance of Jimmer Fredette’s career, and you won’t have to wait long to hear about then-ninth-ranked BYU’s 71-58 win against previously undefeated San Diego State on January 26, 2011, when Jimmer dropped 43 points on Kawhi Leonard. It was a pretty remarkable thing to witness at the time; now, seven and a half years later, it seems completely inconceivable. Fredette went five spots before Leonard in the 2011 NBA draft, got progressively worse in each of his three seasons in Sacramento, was waived by the Kings in February 2014, and bounced around the NBA and D-League for a couple of years before ending up with the Shanghai Sharks. Leonard, meanwhile, has blossomed into one of the best perimeter defenders the game has ever seen—such a transformative talent that the Raptors just traded away their best player in franchise history for what may amount to a one-year rental of Leonard’s services. So how in the hell did that 43-point Fredette outburst happen? Taking everything into account, it has to be one of the most incredible offensive performances in recent basketball history, right?
Well, here’s the part that makes the story much less fun: Jimmer lighting up Kawhi never happened. It’s true that Fredette scored 43 points in leading his team to victory against Leonard’s fourth-ranked Aztecs, but he didn’t score those points with Leonard guarding him. (Reminder: This took place in 2011, when basketball players still had positions and the concept of switching screens hadn’t yet been invented.) But it also doesn’t matter that Kawhi didn’t guard Jimmer that night, because the legend of that game will live on. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been reminded of the true nature of that game a thousand different times, and it’s going to take at least a thousand more reminders for it to sink in. Hell, there’s a good chance that I’ll wake up tomorrow and go back to believing that Jimmer absolutely torched Kawhi once upon a time.
My theory as to why this happens is that people didn’t really pay attention to Fredette’s career at BYU, so we fill in the blanks as our memories see fit. Don’t get me wrong—Jimmer was a bona fide college star. There was no limit to the number of points he could score on a given night, and he left onlookers’ jaws on the floor every time he took the court. But compared with the pandemonium that followed J.J. Redick in 2005-06 or Trae Young for the first half of last season, Jimmer Mania was nowhere near the level that it probably should have been. This was a guy who carried a top-15 team during his junior and senior years and averaged 25.6 points per game while shooting 41.2 percent from the 3-point line.
Maybe the explanation is that America had just seen the “slow white guy pours in points and single-handedly turns a mid-major program out west into a Final Four contender” story play out with Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison in 2005-06. Maybe Jimmer was taken for granted because fans’ brains were already broken by Steph Curry’s absurd shooting displays at Davidson in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Throw in a dash of East Coast bias, BYU rarely playing games on national television, and Jimmer’s one shot at true NCAA tournament glory being submarined by the Brandon Davies honor code suspension, and Fredette has become a modern-day Pete Maravich, in that fans remember his greatness because of his staggering statistics and unique style of play, but don’t recall the ebbs and flows of his career. Jimmer had plenty of transcendent moments, like the time he scored 49 on Arizona in Tucson, the time he hung 47 at Utah, the time he racked up 117 points over a three-day span at the Mountain West tournament, the time he dropped 37 on Florida in an NCAA tournament win, and the time he hit 11 3-pointers against Air Force. But the fact I made up two of those and you don’t know which they are proves my point. In retrospect, America didn’t know Jimmer while he was at BYU—we simply knew of Jimmer.
And that’s exactly why it’s been so fun to watch Jimmer at the Basketball Tournament, whose Super 16 tips off Thursday night in Atlanta. Through two games as the star and namesake of Team Fredette, Jimmer is averaging 31 points on 46.2 percent shooting. Far more importantly, he’s providing the quintessential Jimmer experience: jacking 3s from so deep that cameramen don’t even have the basket in the frame when he releases.
Look, I understand that nothing that happens during this year’s TBT will ever be referenced when answering the question of how good was Jimmer in college. I don’t want to suggest that what may or may not unfold over the next week is going to impact Jimmer’s legacy in any way. But if I’m being completely honest, I forgot the true extent of Fredette’s BYU greatness. I remember that he launched deep 3s and scored a ton of points, but I forgot how that felt. I forgot how he played with so much confidence that he could air-ball 20 straight shots and pull up from 35 feet without hesitation on shot no. 21; I forgot how hilarious it was to watch him dribble around aimlessly for 10 seconds, pick up his dribble to shoot, pass to a teammate when he realized he didn’t have a clean look, and then immediately sprint toward that teammate so he could get the ball back before hitting a fadeaway 3 with a hand in his face. I forgot that Jimmer was doing these things long before Curry’s legendary 2015-16 season with the Warriors made it fashionable for players at all levels of basketball to do the same. And that’s why, as my enjoyment of TBT solidifies, I’ll always welcome reminders of Jimmer’s greatness into my life with open arms.
The organizers of TBT don’t need me to spell this out for them, but offering a platform for these glimpses into the not-too-distant past is the path to making the event stick. Granted, TBT is already growing at an impressive rate, given that its grand prize has ballooned to $2 million from its original total of $500,000. Virtually every player in this year’s bracket is a current or former pro, whereas the runner-up squad in the inaugural 2014 event featured circus monkeys on its roster. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this growth has coincided with TBT leaning more and more into its college basketball elements. Four years after a team full of Notre Dame alums won the inaugural tournament, 27 of the 72 teams in the field are now designated as alumni squads. Of those 27, six remain entering the Super 16: Syracuse, Ohio State, VCU, UCLA, Marquette, and Saint Mary’s. Meanwhile, two of the four TBT regionals were hosted by alumni teams (Ohio State and VCU) that played in front of packed arenas and delivered as close to a college basketball atmosphere as you could possibly find in July.
The modern era of college basketball facilitates so much year-to-year turnover that fans are inevitably left wondering what rosters might have looked like if certain players had stayed for their entire NCAA eligibility. The Basketball Tournament doesn’t fully answer these questions, of course. There’s no way of putting the genie back in the bottle and playing out hypotheticals five or more years after the fact, especially considering that many players are barred from competing in this tournament by their NBA contracts. But TBT is as close to resolution as we’re ever going to get, and that’s fine by me. I mean, do you realize that on Sunday a team composed of stars from the winningest era in Ohio State basketball history could face off with the most prolific college basketball scorer of the past 20 years for a chance to come one step closer to $2 million? On national television? And everyone is still (relatively) young?! It makes no damn sense how this is possible, and as a basketball junkie desperate for my fix in July, I couldn’t be happier about it.
The Basketball Tournament will likely never become appointment viewing for the nation at large. It’s certainly not going to get to the point when a title is so coveted that college programs display its trophies and/or hang banners from the rafters, and plenty of non-alumni teams will always take part. (The three-time TBT defending champion is Overseas Elite, while Team Challenge ALS is last year’s runner-up and plays for a worthy cause. You’d be ridiculous to not want both of these teams in this thing.) But I think TBT can strike gold by playing up the idea that it’s the place where players can go to get one more taste of college basketball shortly after their NCAA careers end. The single-elimination tournament concept has always been appealing; now, the idea of players running it back in pursuit of something bigger is starting to follow. So are weird scenarios that previously played out only in the fever dreams of college basketball fans, like Hakim Warrick and Eric Devendorf teaming up, Greg Oden and Aaron Craft doing the same, Saint Mary’s beating the hell out of Gonzaga, and Jamil Wilson and Maurice Acker shredding the Big East.
Best of all, the Basketball Tournament provides a chance for someone like Jimmer—who’s young enough to take the court without looking washed—to remind America of what it was like to watch him own the college basketball world. Speaking of which, it would be cool to see Jimmer and Davies (who has joined his former college teammate on Team Fredette) make the deep tournament run they deserved in 2011. Even if that doesn’t happen, at least we’ll always have the night Jimmer torched Kawhi Leonard for 43 points.