Fight to the Finish
Shane Battier is our choice in a tight race for player of the year
With just under 17 minutes to play and his team trailing Duke by three points on Sunday, North Carolina guard Joseph Forte made a steal in the Blue Devils' backcourt and sprinted toward what he thought would be an easy breakaway layup. As Forte left the floor, however, Duke forward Shane Battier sprang from behind, knocked the ball from Forte's grasp, then gathered it in his hands and fired a pass upcourt to teammate Jason Williams, who buried a three-pointer to put Duke ahead 53-47. The Tar Heels never got closer, and after the Blue Devils put the finishing touches on a 95-81 rout, Forte conceded that he hadn't seen Battier coming. "I thought I was by myself," he said.
There was a fascinating game being played within Sunday's game—namely, the three-way battle for player of the year honors among Battier, Forte and Williams. Battier finished with a marvelous 25-point, 11-rebound, five-block, four-steal performance. However, the snuff of Forte's shot was emblematic of why he is SI's choice in the tantalizingly close race. Says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, "Whatever our game plan is, we can be a little bit more innovative because we have Shane."
Though a slew of publications, including this one, tabbed Battier, a 6'8" senior, as the pre-season favorite for player of the year, the candidacy of sophomore guard Williams gathered considerable steam as he played extremely well during the first two months of the season. Forte, also a sophomore, emerged as a serious threat in February, when he averaged 25.1 points in eight games and lifted the Tar Heels to the top of the ACC standings and a No. 1 ranking.
Williams also finished with a flourish, scoring 33 points and dishing out nine assists in the win over North Carolina, but Battier has been more consistent all season. In addition, Williams had stumbled at the free throw line of late, making only 50.0% in Duke's last 10 games and 67.3% on the season, through Sunday. (Battier had knocked down 77.8% from the line.) Forte's numbers are also gaudy—he was leading the ACC in scoring (with a 22.0 average) and was third in free throw shooting (84.4%)—but he'd shot a much lower percentage from three-point range than Battier (40.3% to 44.5%) while taking 103 fewer attempts. Forte also occasionally had hurt his team with poor shot selection, as evidenced by his 35.2% accuracy in the Tar Heels' five losses.
If the candidates' offensive numbers were comparable this season, there was no comparison when it came to playing defense. Battier had more steals than either of the other two, and his 2.2 blocks-per-game average was the fourth highest in the ACC.
For someone who is supposed to be an aspiring politician, Battier has done a lousy job promoting his candidacy. Asked last week if he should be voted player of the year, he characterized his play as "nothing spectacular" and added, "I'll leave it in the hands of the voters."
On Sunday, though, he took matters into his own hands, settling a seasonlong debate with a decisive closing argument.
Other Award Winners
Our Votes for the Best of the Rest
?Men's coach of the year: Al Skinner, Boston College. After going 17-40 the previous two seasons, Skinner engineered the only worst-to-first finish in the history of the Big East, going 23-4 during the regular season, without a player taller than 6'8".