The candidates for college basketball's player of the year award are gathered together on our imaginary stage, and it looks something like a presidential primary. So many hopefuls, just one prize.
There's Michigan State guard Shawn Respert, who is one of the few players to generate any excitement in the otherwise lackluster Big Ten this season. He's up there pantomiming the jump-shooting stroke that has produced 25.0 points a game for the conference-leading Spartans. Looking on is Villanova's Kerry Kittles, who is not as long a shooter as Respert but was a much longer shot to win the top player award when the season began. Uh-oh, better send someone to hover around Arizona guard Damon Stoudamire and UCLA forward Ed O'Bannon—their debate about Pac-10 superiority is becoming a bit too spirited. The best person to step between them is Oklahoma State center Bryant (Big Country) Reeves, all 7 feet, 290 pounds of him. And, Country, take Arkansas's 6'7", 260-pound Corliss Williamson with you. Another intense conference rivalry, this one in the ACC, is the subject of a conversation between two other big guys, North Carolina's Rasheed Wallace and Maryland's Joe Smith. Well, maybe conversation isn't the right word—the animated Wallace, who has collected four technical fouls so far this season, is doing all the talking while the low-key Smith is doing all the listening.
There's a commotion at the door where a few other players are trying to crash the party. Massachusetts power forward Lou Roe is back there shouting, "I dogged you, Corliss! I dogged you!" He's referring to the Tipoff Classic on Nov. 25 when he dominated Williamson in the Minutemen's 104-80 thumping of the Hogs. We love you, Lou, but there's not quite enough diversity in your game. Connecticut's Ray Allen is there, too? Tell him we're sorry, but we're only taking one do-everything, inside-outside, high-octane swingman from the Big East, and we've got Kittles. Wait—you say there's one other late arrival? Jerry Stackhouse from North Carolina? Whew, at last. Let him pass!
Yes, Stackhouse is our man, our choice for player of the year. We concede a prejudice toward do-everything, open-court players who sprinkle themselves all over a box score, and the most do-everything guy in the college game this year is Stackhouse, a 6'6" sophomore swingman from Kinston, N.C. Through Sunday, Stackhouse was averaging 19.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.8 blocked shots. He was shooting 50.8% from the floor, including 37.9% from three-point range, and was making 70.5% of his free throws. But we choose Stackhouse not only for what he does on the court—shoot, dunk, pass, play defense, move without the ball—but also for what he does not. He doesn't try to circumvent Dean Smith's even-Michael-Jordan-couldn't-average-25-in-my-system philosophy. He certainly knows where the spice rack is, don't get us wrong. Some of his dunks are alltime all-ACC material. But he has made a commitment to stir the Carolina drink with the standard implements of teamwork and discipline. He's not the only one of our candidates to play with both sass and class, he's simply the best.
First, though, let's give the others onstage their due, for as Wake Forest coach Dave Odom says, "I don't think anybody's going to come up with a consensus choice this year."
What will help Maryland's Smith win his share of player of the year awards—and there are quite a few of them—is that he is far and away the best player on a top team that hasn't been near the top in a while. "Smith elevates his team almost by himself," says Utah coach Rick Majerus, who watched the Terrapin sophomore center go for 33 points in Maryland's 90-78 defeat of the Utes in the Maui Invitational back in November. Then, too, Smith is out of the Stackhouse mold—a quiet, no-nonsense guy who knows that actions speak louder than words. The guess here is that Smith will win the Wooden Award (presented by the Los Angeles Athletic Club) as college basketball's top player. And if he does, we'll say, "Well done, Joe."
Respert earns points because he has driven his team far beyond preseason expectations. Respert was at his best in a Jan. 22 game at Michigan when, after suffering a sprained ankle in the first half, he scored 30 of his 33 points in the second half of a 73-71 Spartan win. And he was at his worst on Feb. 18 at Minnesota when he made only 6 of 21 shots in a 66-57 loss. "There's only so much I can do," said Respert after the game. "Somebody else has to step up." Not the most gracious remark, but nevertheless true.
In his own way Villanova's Kittles has had as good a season as Respert. "What makes Kittles great is that he's one of those guys who really tries to blend in," says North Carolina Charlotte coach Jeff Mullins. "He doesn't try to do it all himself." Stoudamire probably isn't as much of a "blender" as he should be; he seems to be a shooting guard trapped in a point guard's body. But whether you like Stoudamire's game or not, you've got to consider a 6-footer who leads the Pac-10 in both scoring (21.8) and assists (7.5) as a player of the year candidate.
At the other end of the spectrum is Reeves, a true one-position player. He probably won't win anybody's player of the year award, but if the voting were to be held exclusively in Big Eight country, he would be the choice. The conference seems united in the feeling that it is underrated, and Reeves, hard as he is to miss, has become the emblem of that sentiment. "The only reason Bryant Reeves isn't national player of the year," states Nebraska coach Danny Nee, "is that he plays in Stillwater, Oklahoma." There's no doubt that Reeves would be far better known if he were clogging the lane at, say, Madison Square Garden instead of Gallagher-Iba Arena. But Maryland's Smith, to name one, can do everything Reeves can do inside, plus step out, face the basket and squeeze off a 20-foot jumper. Still, that doesn't diminish Reeves's consistency—through Sunday he had been in double figures in all 27 of the Cowboys' games this season—or his preeminence as a true back-to-the-basket center.
O'Bannon, too, has had a spectacular year for UCLA, which, according to coach Jim Harrick, has been the "most consistent team in the country this season." Harrick may be right about that, and if the peaking O'Bannon had gotten off to a faster start, perhaps he would have been our choice. If some of the Eastern players cancel each other out in the balloting, he could still win the award named after the most famous Bruin of all. "He would never say it," says Ed's brother, Charles, "but being player of the year would mean the world to him."