Best in the Big East?
MORGANTOWN - Coaches often tend toward hyperbole when discussing players they are about to face or have just encountered. It's just the nature of the beast.
Think of it as the antithesis of bulletin board material.
In this day and age of instant communication, most coaches are way too smart to provide incentive to opponents. But make an opposing player seem like a cross between the talent of Michael Jordan and work ethic of Da'Sean Butler (with a little Mother Teresa thrown in for good measure), hey, who does that hurt? If anything it might get a guy or a team feeling a little too good about themselves.
Did you see what they said about me, that I'm the best free-throw shooter since Calvin Murphy? Argggghhh! Let's kill those guys!
No, it just doesn't have the same motivational appeal, does it?
(Just as an aside, as long as I'm peripherally touching on bulletin board material, I have to recount what remains the best - or worst - bulletin board comment I've ever conveyed in print: Jarret Kearse, then a freshman WVU guard in 1997-98, said he'd played summer ball with Connecticut's Khalid El-Amin. "He's a little chubby kid. ... We played head up and I had about 45 points.'' Next day's result: UConn 88, WVU 75. Kearse, 1 point. El-Amin, 12-of-18, 29 points, four assists.)
Anyway, back to the point, which is coaches playing up opponents, not knocking them down. It happens all the time, of course, but rarely do I recall it happening to a West Virginia player with the kind of regularity with which praise is being heaped upon Kevin Jones these days.
It's been more than a week now since the Mountaineers played a team whose coach didn't pump Jones not only for Big East player of the year, but national player of the year.
Marshall's Tom Herrion before Jones went for 25 points, seven rebounds and three assists: "You lead that conference in scoring and rebounding; I mean, I've been in that league twice and that says enough. You do that in that league and that means you're in talks for player of the year on the national level.''
And Cincinnati's Mick Cronin after Jones' 26-point, 13-rebound afternoon in the Mountaineers' overtime win over the Bearcats Saturday: "That's why he's the player of the year in the Big East. When a guy is a great player you have to give him credit.''
No West Virginia player, of course, has ever so much as sniffed the big round basketball awarded to the Big East player of the year. Shoot, it's rare that a Mountaineer even makes the All-Big East first team. Damian Owens (1998) and Calvin Bowman (2001) did it when it was a five-man team; Mike Gansey (2006), Kevin Pittsnogle (2006) and Frank Young (2007) made unwieldy 11-man first teams, and Butler (2010) was on the first unit after it was mercifully reduced to a manageable six players.
That's six first-team All-Big East players in 16 years of league play.
It will no doubt become seven at the end of this season, but the more intriguing question is Jones' actual chances of winning player of the year. History would seem to be on his side given that the only two players who ever led the Big East in scoring and rebounding in the same season were both so honored - Walter Berry of St. John's in 1986 and Notre Dame's Troy Murphy in 2000 (Luke Harangody led the league twice in both categories, but in conference games only. Murphy also did the same thing one other time).
There's no guarantee, of course, that Jones - now averaging 20.7 points and 11.5 rebounds - will still be atop both categories at the end of the season. Jones has healthy leads over Villanova's Maalik Wayns (18.7) in scoring and Seton Hall's Herb Pope (10.5) in rebounding, but that's hardly the point. No one is playing as well or is as valuable to their team as Jones.
Just for a reference point, take the four Big East players who remain on the 25-man Wooden Award watch list as the national player of the year - Jones, UConn's Jeremy Lamb, Darius Johnson-Odom of Marquette and Kris Joseph of Syracuse. It seems unlikely that the league player of the year will come from outside that group unless someone (a team and a player) just get ridiculously hot.
Now, quantifying the best player from that group is difficult given that they are different types of players. So we'll do as most do and try to gauge their worth as most valuable to their teams. Take any of those other three off the floor and their teams don't sink nearly as far as West Virginia without Jones.
There's a reason Jones averages a staggering 38.86 minutes per Big East game this season, and it was never more apparent than Saturday's overtime win against Cincinnati. The Mountaineers had led for the entire first half before just falling completely apart in the final four minutes when Jones picked up his second foul and had to sit down. Without Jones on the floor, WVU seemed completely mystified at how to run offense or score, so the Mountaineers didn't, going 0-for-6 with a turnover and just two free throws to show over those final minutes.
How critical was the lapse? Well, just before his exit Jones had scored in the post to make it 30-21, matching West Virginia's biggest lead of the game. By the time halftime mercifully arrived the Mountaineers trailed 33-32 after UC missed just one shot and outscored WVU 12-2.
That's the kind of season West Virginia might well be suffering through without Jones.
And by the way, if Jones stays on his current pace, he's likely to finish fourth or fifth on the school's all-time scoring list and third or fourth on the all-time rebounding chart. There are only two other players in the top five of both lists, guys named West and Hundley. And Hundley's not going to stay there because Jones will knock him down a notch in about a week.
Those are player of the year numbers.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.