BYU Basketball Star Faces San Diego State

Brigham Young University's men's basketball team plays San Diego State Saturday. And all eyes are on senior James "Jimmer" Fredette. The point guard from upstate New York has helped move his team — the Cougars — into the top 10. By all accounts, Fredette is a nice guy from a talented family who takes his education as seriously as he takes his basketball. And he's one of the strong contenders for college basketball's Player of the Year.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

College basketball's March Madness is just around the corner. And schools are vying FOR the best position going into the tournament. Tomorrow, seventh-ranked Brigham Young University faces number four, San Diego State. It's one of the biggest games of the year.

James Nelson reports that much of the buzz is about one young man: BYU point guard James "Jimmer" Fredette.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

JAMES NELSON: With that free throw, Jimmer Fredette became the leading scorer in Mountain West Conference basketball history. Fredette is the youngest of three children in a family with two religions: Catholics on his mother's side, Mormons on his father's side.

He was a star high school player in the blue-collar factory town of Glenn Falls, New York. But he learned to work a crowd playing exhibition games at local prison.

Mr. JIMMER FREDETTE: And it was a little intimidating at first when you walk in there and just see all the inmates. And they line them up and, you know, have them watch from the stands. And then there's guards with guns on the sidelines to make sure that nothing goes wrong. But we never had any problems. It was a lot of fun, just played regular basketball and even made some friends in there, and they all follow BYU basketball now. So it's cool.

NELSON: Fredette has plenty of fans far from those prison walls. His basketball profile reads like the front cover of a box of Wheaties. He leads the nation in scoring. He's an all-American, a top candidate for College Player of the Year, and in Provo, Utah, his BYU jersey sells fast.

Unidentified Woman: Do you guys have any Jimmer jerseys?

Unidentified Woman #2: No, we're all out. We haven't been able to get the new one in. We should have them next game.

NELSON: The notoriety hasn't changed Fredette much. On campus, the American studies major typically wears sweaters and khakis. In fact, he looks like a choir boy. But his game could muster up a rousing Hallelujah chorus.

Fredette could have left BYU a year ago to play professional basketball. But he's comfortable with his decision to stay in college.

Mr. FREDETTE: It's been a great year. It's been a great decision of mine, I think, to come back to school and not go to the NBA and becoming a better basketball player and better person. I think it's really helped out and, you know, it's been definitely the best year of my life so far.

NELSON: Critics say Fredette lacks skill as a defender and is too small to play effectively at the professional level. Former NBA coach Tom Nassalke says otherwise.

Mr. TOM NISALKE (Former Basketball Coach): He's six feet. That's big enough. Jimmer is strong enough. He's going to get stronger. But whoever gets him has to look at his positives rather than his negatives and build off the positives, which he's a legitimate offensive powerhouse.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

NELSON: Fredette plays like an old-school street kid, whose explosive scoring has drawn attention from the likes Oklahoma City star Kevin Durrant in the NBA.

Mr. KEVIN DURRANT (Basketball Player): Unbelievable player. He's filling up the stat sheet right now. I'm really a big fan. So, hopefully, he has a great career.

(Soundbite of music)

NELSON: Fredette's brother TJ has chronicled Jimmer's basketball journey in a music video called "Amazing," rap lyrics about his little brothers' long odds to basketball success. Fredette says he hopes to make basketball a career but understands there's more than the game.

Mr. FREDETTE: What's important is the relationships that you make while you're here and, you know, how people perceive you and how you treat people.

(Soundbite of basketball game)

NELSON: Tomorrow, Jimmer Fredette will have another chance to prove what many are saying, that he's the best player in college basketball this year. Jimmer and his BYU Cougar teammates take on the San Diego State Aztecs in a nationally televised game in California.

For NPR News, I'm James Nelson in Salt Lake City.

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