Kragthorpe: Ainge was more valuable to BYU than Jimmer
College basketball • Cougs have continued to thrive after Jimmer; not so after Ainge left.
Published: March 2, 2012 11:52PM
Updated: February 29, 2012 11:26PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

The comparison is a bit tricky, because BYU’s basketball program switched conferences after Jimmer Fredette completed his Cougar career.

Yet assuming BYU makes the 2012 NCAA Tournament field, this conclusion will come into play: Danny Ainge was more valuable than Jimmer.

Either that, or Steve Craig meant more to the Cougars than Jackson Emery, which is unlikely.

Judging by what happened in their absence, after the star guards led the Cougars to the Sweet 16 (or beyond) on their way to the NBA, Ainge left a bigger void in the program than Fredette.

The former Jimmerettes have trumped Danny’s Boys.

In 1981-82, the Cougars lost Ainge and Craig from the backcourt of a 25-7 team. BYU still had future NBA players Fred Roberts and Greg Kite, plus forward Steve Trumbo. The Cougars went 17-13 overall and 9-7 (fourth) in the Western Athletic Conference, losing at home to Washington in the first round of the NIT.

Thirty years later, BYU replaced Fredette and Emery after a 32-5 season that included the school’s deepest NCAA run since Ainge’s era. The Cougars stand 24-7, entering the West Coast Conference tournament in Las Vegas. A quarterfinal victory over San Diego or Pepperdine on Friday should send the Cougars to the NCAA Tournament for a sixth consecutive year, a nice achievement in the wake of Jimmermania.

The variable, of course, is the move to the WCC. We’ll never know exactly where BYU would have finished in the Mountain West, which has become a deep, competitive league. But judging by their non-conference performance and ability to win on the road in the WCC, the Cougars probably would be right about where they are today: reasonably well-positioned for an NCAA bid.

On neutral floors, they dominated Nevada and Oregon and played Wisconsin evenly for a half. At home, they hammered a good Weber State team by 28 points and should have beaten Baylor. In league play, they split with Gonzaga, and only a home loss to Loyola Marymount is not easily explained.

While basically playing without forwards Stephen Rogers and Chris Collinsworth because of injuries and having transfer guard Matt Carlino become eligible only in mid-December, the Cougars have come together well. Senior forward Noah Hartsock is a classic case of a complementary player who blossomed when he was asked — or allowed — to do more in Jimmer’s absence. Junior center Brandon Davies also made the All-WCC team, responding well after his school-imposed suspension last March.

He watched from the bench as the Cougars played in the NCAA Tournament, so no one would appreciate that opportunity more than Davies, unless it is Weber State guard Damian Lillard. In each of Lillard’s first two years, the Wildcats lost in the Big Sky Conference tournament in Ogden, then he missed most of last season with a broken foot.

By losing Tuesday at Montana, the Wildcats blew their chance to host the league tournament. They’ll likely have to beat Montana on its home floor next week to reach the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, if Lillard enters the NBA Draft as a projected first-rounder, he would depart as the best player from a Utah school who never made an NCAA appearance — at least since 1971, when Utah’s Mike Newlin launched an 11-year NBA career.

Hartsock and teammate Charles Abouo, meanwhile, should join a short list of BYU players who have competed in four NCAA Tournaments. Fredette is one of them; Ainge is not. Fredette also topped Ainge as BYU’s all-time leading scorer.

As this season’s performance tells us, though, Ainge’s old teammates missed him more.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com