By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Considering that West Virginia University took Horace Greeley’s advice – “Go West, young man, go west” – a couple of seasons back and threw it with schools from Texas and Oklahoma and Iowa and Kansas as part of a conference known as the Big 12, it might be best to label the goings-on in Ames, Iowa, tonight as “The Shootout at the OK Corral” or some such thing.
We talk not about the game between a group of Mountaineers from WVU and the host Iowa State Cyclones, although that figures to be something to see, too, but instead about the game within the game that will be played out this evening.
That is the face-to-face showdown between the Mountaineers’ Juwan Staten and the Cyclone’s Melvin Ijim for the conference’s Player of the Year title.
Now both will deny such a thing is at stake, Staten in fact already having done so when he spoke following WVU’s latest loss to Baylor.
“The goal is definitely to win,” said Staten when the subject arose “I’m definitely team first. I want to win every game, I want to win every time we step on the court and I think we all understand that if we win, then the personal accolades will take care of themselves.”
There is much truth to that, and it is the one fly in the ointment label “Juwan Staten for Big 12 Player of the Year” for WVU has not been a winning basketball team and no matter what level or what the sport there is a leaning toward players from winning teams in these personal awards.
Certainly that’s the way it should be if the award is a “Most Valuable Player” award such as is given out in baseball, for it is difficult to have much value on a team that finishes with a losing record or in the second division.
But “Most Outstanding Player” or “Player of the Year” awards carry a slightly different connotation, something offered up for personal accomplishment rather than for value to a team … although I can’t argue with anyone who wants to figure that into the equation.
Now when this season opened, not a soul anywhere would have imagined either Staten or Ijim as being a candidate to win the league’s top honor.
That, it was conceded, belonged to Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, who had won it the previous year and fooled everyone by returning for a sophomore season rather than heading into the NBA.
The award was his, unless Kansas super freshman Andrew Wiggin exploded onto the scene with an even better year than Smart could manufacture.
Smart, however, imploded with an ill-advised – although quietly applauded in some quarters – venture into the stands at Texas Tech to go after a foul-mouthed fan that led to a three-game suspension on a team that was coming apart even with his presence.
And while Wiggins has put together a nice season, it has not been a superstar season. In fact, it might even be the kind of year to make him consider following Smart’s route and returning for a second year of seasoning.
Ijim, on the other hand, has come along slowly through a five-year career, something you seldom see any longer, leading the conference a year ago in rebounding and this year trying to make history as the leading scorer.
No one has ever led the Big 12 in one of those major conferences in one season, then led in the other the next.
Ijim 18.9 points per game while standing third in rebounds at 8.4 and second in field goal percentage at 52.6 percent, dazzling figures that make one wonder who WVU held him to just six points and 1 for 9 shooting the first time around and what kind of payback he has in store for them on his home court.
But Ijim is more than just a basketball player, according to his coach, Fred Hoiberg.
“Off the court he is one of best I’ve been around as far as being a well-rounded person,” said Hoiberg, noting he was a first team academic All-American. “He’s got his priorities right. He’s a history major with a minor in business. He does so many things to prepare himself for life he will be a success no matter whatever he does.”
Far more startling that Ijim’s push toward Player of the Year honors is Staten’s, for he really came from nowhere. He had transferred to WVU after a year at Dayton, sat out a season and then played rather hesitantly all through last year, his shooting absolutely dismal at 37.6 percent while missing the only 9 3-point shots he attempted.
But Staten was driven and dedicated himself to his game in the off-season and has comeback as the league’s most dominant player. The numbers alone will floor you.
Playing almost 40 minutes of every game – he leads the league in minutes played by an average of two and a half minutes per game – he is third in scoring at 18.0 points a game, first in assists at 6.04 per game, 6th in steals with 1.26 per game, second in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.96, but most impressive is that this man who shot 37.6 percent last year is fourth in the league in shooting percentage at 50.1 percent.
He completely molded his game to Huggins’ requirements.
“He’s way better on the ball,” Huggins pointed out earlier this year. “I think he would say that his mentality last year was to conserve himself. That goes back to being the best guy in high school, but I think he understands how hard he has to play – and I think he trusts the fact that if you play hard and you need a break, you can go back in whenever you want. I’ve always been that way.” And so he has gone hard on offense, on defense, in practice. Putting it together with his sizeable package of skills and a basketball IQ that ranks near genius, he has become what Huggins needs at the point guard spot.
“I feel like Coach Huggs does the best, or his team is really good, when he has a player that he can trust that really knows what’s going on,” explained Staten. “I’ve seen that with KJ (Kevin Jones). He really trusted KJ, put a lot of responsibility on KJ and trusted Truck (Bryant) as well and kind of left it up to them to lead the team.”
So it will be interesting to see just which of the two players takes charge of this head to head battle for it could influence post-season in more ways than just tournament seeding.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.