SAN DIEGO -- BYU has had a history of being hated on the road in the Mountain West, and before that in the WAC, throughout the past 30 years.
Previous Cougar teams have relished playing the role of the villain. But BYU hasn't had a player so talented, so respected -- and at the same time so targeted -- since Danny Ainge.
BYU senior guard Jimmer Fredette embraces that role, scoring 47 at Utah, 42 at Colorado State and 39 at UNLV. But if the Cougars are going to be something special in March, he must produce like he did in Saturday's 80-67 victory at San Diego State.
Fredette had to take 23 shots to score 25 points, but it was his nine assists that set the tone for the Cougars and sent a message to the rest of the country that this team is much more than Fredette.
San Diego State rushed at Fredette plenty, frustrating him at times on the defensive end (he committed four personal fouls), and getting the ball out of his hands. But in focusing on Fredette, the Aztecs neglected to close out on the team's other shooters. BYU's Charles Abouo made four 3-pointers, Jackson Emery converted two, Noah Hartsock three and even seldom-used Stephen Rogers had one.
"I know they can make shots,'' said Fredette, who is likely one of two players who will end the season as an AP All-American after starting the season as a preseason first-team selection (the other is Purdue's JaJuan Johnson).
"They were double-teaming me to open up shots for my teammates and they are good enough to hit those shots,'' Fredette said.
San Diego State has two losses this season -- both to BYU. Brigham Young has now beaten San Diego State four times in a row, and has won six of the past seven matchups.
When Fredette lit up SDSU for 43 in January, the rest of the Cougars scored 28 points. But Saturday, Fredette scored just 25 of the Cougars' 80 points. BYU shot 14-of-24 on 3s.
"You saw that BYU is more than a one-man show,'' SDSU coach Steve Fisher said. "Fredette creates so many problems that if you give a little extra help that he can help turn a three- or four-point lead into 11 in a heartbeat.''
Fredette must have the confidence in his teammates to make shots. And he does.
"He makes the majority of our big plays, but all the attention he gets means we can be wide open,'' Abouo said. "We have to be ready to hit them. Me, Jackson, Noah and Steve have to get those shots in.''
Emery said he has such a strong relationship with Fredette that he has told him he can kick it out to others. And he has listened.
"It's overlooked how much he can find guys,'' Emery said. "If we don't make shots, it's going to make Jimmer's job a lot harder.''
The Cougars lost to UCLA in Anaheim at the Wooden Classic in December. And they did get tagged by New Mexico at The Pit after beating SDSU in late January. But those are the Cougars' only blemishes. This team has shown it can handle adverse situations.
"I don't know if we thrive on the publicity Jimmer gets, but the rest of the guys do respond well,'' Emery said.
The Cougars handled everything well Saturday, especially in trapping and wreaking havoc on the Aztecs' post players. Malcolm Thomas missed seven shots. Kawhi Leonard missed eight. Both of those guys are bigs. They did miss a combined three 3s, but it wasn't like they had easy looks in the halfcourt. SDSU got out on the break, and James Rahon, D.J. Gay and Chase Tapley hit 3s to keep SDSU in the game.
But San Diego State must find more consistency in the halfcourt to win in March, as well as close out better on 3-point shooting.
While the loss may have cost the Aztecs the MWC title and a possible No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament, they are still in line for a No. 2 seed and will likely open in Tucson.
But the road will get bumpier before the Dance, as SDSU will most likely play third-place UNLV in the MWC semifinals in Las Vegas.
Still, the Aztecs look to be a major factor in March.
"We've got to find a way to deal when struggles happen,'' Fisher said. "We can't succumb to fatigue. We have to tip our hat to BYU and hopefully get another chance to win.
"I think they've got a great chance to be a No. 1 seed if they continue to win,'' Fisher said. "They're a terrific basketball team.''
Fisher believes the Aztecs still have a chance to do something special.
But BYU has the momentum heading into the final week of the regular season. The Cougars finish with New Mexico and Wyoming at home.
The Aztecs put on a show this weekend, and the student section was loud, passionate and created a classic college atmosphere previously unheard of here in San Diego.
But Fredette and BYU prevailed, showing just how much this team has matured. The Cougars appear poised to handle anything March may toss their way.
"This team has a huge heart,'' BYU coach Dave Rose said. "We were the underdog and that doesn't happen too often. They enjoyed that role. You would think we deserve something really good in this [NCAA] tournament. This is a special group. We've won the East Coast, the West Coast and we've got a real special player.''
BYU has conditions for retiring numbers and being an All-American is one of them. Fredette will have his day at the Marriott Center. He will go down as one of the greatest scorers in BYU history. But he can leave an even larger imprint if he continues to distribute the ball the way he did Saturday.