You might say that Shaquille O'Neal, LSU's 7'1" sophomore center, and Dawn Staley, the 5'5" junior guard for the Virginia women, both carried their teams this season. O'Neal did it by slinging the otherwise undistinguished Tigers over his massive shoulders and carrying the team to 20 wins, Staley by giving the accomplished Cavaliers a boost whenever and wherever one was needed. In different ways, both were invaluable to their teams, which is why they are SI's players of the year.
Not that either was an easy choice. Among the men, swingman Jimmy Jackson of Ohio State and forwards Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson of UNLV received strong consideration. But even if O'Neal didn't lead LSU, which lost nine games, to a spectacular season, it was impossible to pass over a player whose statistics—27.7 points, 14.6 rebounds and 5.0 blocks per game—were far better than those amassed by Patrick Ewing, Akeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson when they were sophomores. One has to go back to Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton at UCLA to find pivotmen who so dominated the stat sheet as second-year players. And if any question remained as to how much O'Neal means to LSU, it should have been answered by the Tigers' performance in their regular-season finale and in the opening round of the SEC tournament: With O'Neal sidelined with a hairline fracture of his left leg, LSU lost 76-73 to Mississippi State and then 92-77 to seventh-seeded Auburn.
Beyond the numbers, O'Neal left a deeper imprint on this season than any other player. The sight of him swinging from the rim after a monstrous dunk in the Tigers' 92-82 win over Arizona back on Dec. 8 remains one of the year's most memorable images.
On the women's side, Staley's stats—13.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 4.2 steals—weren't as overwhelming as O'Neal's, but she was no less effective. She supplied a little of everything for the 27-2 Cavaliers, who were ranked No. 1 for all but two weeks during the regular season, before losing to Clemson in the ACC tournament on March 3. She scored when necessary, helped on the boards—even though she's only 5'5", she was Virginia's second-best rebounder—and distributed the ball to her talented teammates. Staley was at her best in big games, getting two triple doubles in the Cavs' two victories over their toughest ACC rival, North Carolina State.
Like O'Neal, Staley beat out an impressive list of performers for player of the year honors, including Cal State-Fullerton's senior center, Genia Miller, who is the nation's second-leading woman scorer (29.4 points per game in the regular season); senior guards Carolyn Jones of Auburn and Andrea Stinson of North Carolina State; and forward Jan Jensen of Drake. Jensen, a 5'10" senior public relations major, not only was the country's No. 1 scorer (she averaged 29.7 points during the regular season), but also has a 3.8 grade point average. That combination earned her the women's GTE Academic All-America of the Year award. (The winner of the men's version of that award was Mike Iuzzolino, a senior guard at St. Francis (Pa.), who has a 3.8 average as a political science-secondary education major.) But on the court, the most impressive combination of talents belonged to O'Neal and Staley.