DENVER -- Here’s a look at the evening games taking place at the Pepsi Center in Denver:
How they got here: Senior Jimmer Fredette led BYU to a co-Mountain West Conference regular-season title, led the country in scoring and had a national player of the year-type season. The Cougars took a gut punch when leading rebounded Brandon Davies was suspended for the season after an honor code violation, but have had five games to rework their offense. Wofford split its regular-season SoCon title with College of Charleston and then beat its rival in the conference tournament championship game.
Storyline: BYU is on a mission to reach its first Sweet 16 since Danny Ainge led the Cougars to the Elite Eight in 1981.They finally have another program-changing player in Fredette and there is an urgency to capitalize on his talents while they have him. The Davies suspension hurt the team, and it will be interesting to see if struggles in the paint cost the Cougars. Wofford, which nearly upset Wisconsin in the opening round last season, wants to spoil BYU’s fun and has the personnel to do it with a strong post presence in Noah Dahlman.
Players to watch: Fredette, averaging 28.5 points per game, is expected to carry the scoring load but the Cougars will need contributions from others. Jackson Emery is solid as Fredette’s backcourt sidekick, and the big men -- Kyle Collinsworth, Noah Hartsock and James Anderson -- will have to step up in place of Davies. “I think that’s a mistake people make is it’s Jimmer, Jimmer, Jimmer,“ Wofford coach Mike Young said. For the Terriers, Jamar Diggs is the top defender who will be the primary player on Fredette with Cameron Rundles providing help. The Terriers will look to feed the post, where Dahlman is a dangerous scorer who averages 20 points per game.
What to look for: If Fredette goes off, it’s going to be a long night for Wofford. If the Terriers can contain him and exploit the interior with Dahlman, they have a chance even as the Cougars try to go up and down the floor.
“We know they’re a great team, very efficient,” Emery said. “We’re going to have to really run and play hard because that’s the way we like to play. That’s the style we feel most comfortable at.”
How they got here: In his first year at St. John's, head coach Steve Lavin turned around a program by using a senior-laden roster and finished tied for third in the Big East. The Red Storm earned their at-large bid by notching wins against Duke, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Connecticut and Villanova. Gonzaga began its season 4-5 and struggled to handle a brutal stretch in their non-conference schedule. But the Bulldogs bounced back to share the West Coast Conference regular-season title and win the conference tournament.
Storyline: St. John’s is making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002, and winning a tournament game would mean a lot to the nine seniors on the team. “My first three years here, we haven’t really done so well,” guard Malik Boothe said. “Turning it all the way around our senior year makes it all the more special for us.” A win for a tournament-tested Gonzaga team would also mean a lot considering the team at one point was a full three games out of first place in the WCC.
Players to watch: With St. John’s losing D.J. Kennedy for the rest of the season with an ACL injury, Sean Evans and freshman Dwayne Polee Jr. have to step up. The Red Storm can also relay on Dwight Hardy to get to the rim and Justin Brownlee to score and rebound. Gonzaga relies on a trio of players -- Steven Gray, Robert Sacre and Elias Harris -- for a balanced scoring attack. Also look out for young players like Sam Dower, Marquise Carter and David Stockton, the son of Hall of Famer John Stockton, to make key contributions.
What to look for: St. John’s has been battle-tested in the Big East. It’ll be interesting to see how it’s up-and-down style works against a Gonzaga team that can play in the half court and get out in transition.
“We don’t want to get in an up-and-down match where we’re making silly turnovers, doing thing out of character,” Gray said. “It’s going to be really interesting to see who can control the tempo.”