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
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.''
As it would to Williamson, who has been trying, without success,
to live down his relatively poor performance (15 points and seven
rebounds, compared with 34 and 13 for Roe) against UMass in
November. ``It's so sad,'' says Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson of
the common assumption that Williamson has had a subpar year.
``Corliss is a heckuva lot better player this year. Every night
there are four or five players banging on him. The only way to
stop him is to hit him.''
Can Wallace win? Or will he and Stackhouse split the vote in
their region? The answers are probably not and probably. For all the
questions that have been raised about his attitude, the 6 10"
Wallace is a gifted and gritty player who, like Smith, can shoot
inside and outside, dominate on defense with his shot-blocking and
run the floor like a guard. Dean Smith would rather sit in a
dunking booth at a Duke fund-raising carnival than compare his
players to one another, but one Carolina insider swears that the
coach's MVP would be Wallace not Stackhouse. But for all his
splendor, Wallace is not a better player than Stackhouse. And in
tight situations, when emotions have to be reined in, Wallace can
still be a liability. Stackhouse, by contrast, is an anchor.
What are some other reasons why we like Stackhouse? Let us count
During an up-and-down freshman season when he, Wallace and point
guard Jeff McInnis sat a little and stewed a lot on a
senior-dominated team, Stackhouse kept his poise. And when Dean
Smith suddenly tapped him on the shoulder before the ACC
tournament and said, ``Take over, kid,'' all Stackhouse did was
play through the obvious resentment he sensed from the
upperclassmen, lead the Tar Heels to the championship and become
the third North Carolina freshman (Phil Ford and Sam Perkins were
the others) to win the ACC tournament's MVP award. So, what did he
think about backing up players to whom he felt superior? ``It was
tough,'' he admits. ``But it's almost like as a freshman here you
have to be torn down to be built back up. I'd go through it all
No, what does he really think about playing second fiddle through
most of the year? Stackhouse smiles. ``I hated it, because in
actuality we kicked their butts every day in practice,'' he says.
He's a crowd pleaser but doesn't play to the crowd. A Stackhouse
moment: Feb. 2, 1995, North Carolina against its bitter archrival
Duke (following story). Stackhouse blows by Blue Devil Cherokee
Parks, drives under the basket, emerges on the other side and
throws down a vicious one-handed dunk as he gets fouled by
another Duke giant, Erik Meek. Not to belabor this, but it was a
play reminiscent of you know who.
After that dunk Stackhouse did a very untypical Stackhouse thing -- he did a little shimmy
before walking to the foul line and completing the three-point
play. It was unusual because Stackhouse never talks trash, never
shows anyone up. During an AAU game a few summers ago, he drew a
technical foul for arguing with a referee. ``I saw the look on my
mom's face, the embarrassment it caused her,'' says Stackhouse.
``And I never wanted to do that again.'' So far, he hasn't.
And does he discuss the T-word with his demonstrative pal Wallace?
``Look, I love what Rasheed does on the court,'' says Stackhouse.
``That's his style, that's what gets him going.'' He smiles again.
``The only time I don't love it is the next day at practice when
we're doing 10 crosses.'' A ``cross'' is a length-of-the-court
sprint, the penalty exacted by Smith on all the Heels when anyone
gets a tech.
He lives for prime time. With the clock running down in overtime
of last season's ACC tournament semifinal against Wake Forest,
it was Stackhouse's layup that won the game 86-84. On Feb. 19
against Virginia, Stackhouse made two key baskets down the
stretch, and the Heels were looking for him in the game's final
play when they threw it away and lost 73-71. The thing to
remember is that Stackhouse had missed 12 of his 16 shots in
that game, yet he was still the go-to guy. Smith's system
doesn't play favorites, but check out how often House has the
ball with the clock running down or the game on the line. ``What
makes him so tough is that he senses the moment,'' says Odom.
He will pay the price to improve. There were little holes in
Stackhouse's game last season. His outside shooting was not
dependable, and his ball handling was sloppy. So he stayed around
Chapel Hill and worked all summer with Rick Fox and Hubert Davis,
former Tar Heels now playing in the NBA. ``I know Carolina isn't
the place to be if you want to be the Man,'' he says. ``I knew it
coming out of high school. Everybody told me that my game wasn't
tailored to Coach Smith's system. But what I knew then and what I
know now is that I will be a better and more complete player when
I get out of here, no matter what my stats are.''
And when will he ``get out of here''? Though he has waffled on
the subject of leaving early for the NBA, Stackhouse sounded firm in
his decision last week. ``I'll be here,'' he says, looking ahead
to his junior year. ``There are lots of things I want to
accomplish as a college player that I probably won't get to do
this season. Being consensus player of the year might be one of
Well, he's right. It won't happen this season. But he has this
vote. Our House is a very, very, very fine House indeed, and he's
only going to get better.