The name game: who will be this year's breakout star in NCAAs?
The tourney has turned players into household names, if only for a weekend
Jimmer Fredette, BYU's leading scorer, is the safest bet to seize the spotlight
Will it be ex-dishwasher Anthony Johnson (Montana) or Siena's Just-in'love Smith?
If I had to guess the identity of just one player who would rocket from roundball recognizable to mainstream superstardom this weekend, it would be BYU guard Jimmer Fredette.
Why Fredette? Because I subscribe to Miles Massey's Tenzing Norgay Theory. Massey is a divorce attorney played by George Clooney in the Coen brothers' Intolerable Cruelty, and he believes that to dig up dirt on an opponent, one must first find that person's Tenzing Norgay. Massey's hapless assistant asks how one goes about finding a Norgay. Simple, Massey replies. Start with the people with the funny names.
That's exactly where I start when I try to discern which players will launch themselves into a blazing moment of glory with a tourney performance for the ages. One of the greatest aspects of the tournament is its power to turn a player into an A-lister -- even if it's just for a weekend.
So it's easiest to start with the funny names. After all, the tournament gave us star turns for Wyoming's Fennis Dembo, Weber State's Harold "The Show" Arcenaux, Arkansas' Ulysses "U.S." Reed, Ole Miss' Ansu Sesay and Providence's God Shammgod. Of course, there really isn't anything odd about the handles of N.C. State's Lorenzo Charles, Davidson's Stephen Curry or Valparaiso's Bryce Drew, but we still remember them for their buzzer-beaters (Charles and Drew) or their magical runs (Curry).
Like Fredette this year, these guys were known commodities in the somewhat insular world of college basketball, but the NCAA tournament is an entirely different stage. Ladies' bridge clubs who don't know Jim Boeheim from Stephen Sondheim fill out brackets and watch every game. Cubicle dwellers who haven't watched a minute of college hoops all year crowd the bars on a pair of Thursdays and Fridays because these are the Happiest of Happy Hours. The NCAA tournament turned these guys into household names, even if -- as in the case of Arcenaux, who blitzed third-seeded North Carolina for 36 points in a 1998 upset -- only for 48 hours.
This year, Fredette is the safest bet to get a mention in a David Letterman monologue next week. It helps that the 6-foot-2 guard from Glens Falls, N.Y., has a name that lodges itself in the brain and won't let go. He's also capable of dropping 30-plus on an opponent. Fredette has seven 30-plus point games this season, including a 49-point outburst against Arizona and a 45-pointer last week against TCU. As Arcenaux , Curry and Dembo would attest, scoring in bunches is one of the two easiest paths to sudden mainstream fame and tourney immortality.
The other path is to hit a shot at or near the buzzer to win a game. Charles' putback in 1983 beat Houston's Phi Slamma Jamma for the national title, and Tyus Edney's coast-to-coast drive saved UCLA's 1995 title, but Keith Smart, Michael Jordan, Reed and Drew would point out that most buzzer-beaters don't originate so close to the rim. Since Fredette is BYU's leading scorer and a 45-percent three-point shooter, chances are the ball will be in his hands if the Cougars' first-round game against Florida comes down to a final shot.
The buzzer-beater path to fame is the most memorable because of the emotional swing. All hope is lost. Then, in seconds, all prayers are answered. Plus, buzzer-beaters make for great stories.
Two years ago in Tampa, I sat a few feet from Western Kentucky guard Ty Rogers when he launched a bomb in overtime to beat Drake as the clock expired. The only thing more fun than seeing the dogpile up close was talking to Rogers' parents minutes later. Rogers' mother, Ruth, volunteered that Ty learned to count by threes. Later, she said she taped the One Shining Moment montage every year. When your ace reporter uttered the obvious -- that her son would play a starring role in the 2008 edition -- Ruth looked as if she might cry.
Meanwhile, Rogers' three-stoplight hometown of Eddyville, Ky., celebrated. According to LostLetterman.com, Rogers is back in Eddyville, where he graduated as valedictorian of Lyon County High. Rogers is a pharmaceutical sales rep, and thanks to his shot, he'd never have to buy a beer again if he didn't live in a dry county.
Will Glens Falls celebrate a Fredette buzzer-beater this week? Or will Tacoma, Wash., toast Montana's Anthony Johnson, the former dishwasher who wouldn't have been recruited by his junior college had his basketball-playing future wife not insisted on a package deal? Johnson put the Grizzlies in the tournament by scoring the team's final 21 points as it overcame a 22-point deficit to beat Weber State for the Big Sky title. If it isn't Johnson, maybe Mesa, Ariz., will cheer a three-pointer from Saint Mary's guard Mickey McConnell, who, alas, is playing a day after St. Patrick's Day.
Massey would expect stardom from Siena guard Just-in'love Smith. Unfortunately, Smith, an Army veteran who served in Iraq before joining the Saints as a walk-on, has played in only six games this season. But whether it's Fredette, Johnson, McConnell, Smith (a sportswriter can dream) or someone else, one thing is certain.
By Saturday morning, someone now famous only in the world of college basketball will -- for at least a weekend -- stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Clooney, Beyonce and the rest of the A-list. That stardom will fade quickly, but that's OK, because the player who captures our imagination this weekend will live forever in the hearts of hoops fans.
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