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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mike Bradley: Where's the Love for Jodie Meeks?

The days are shorter. The snow is falling. Conference play is starting.

Yup. College Basketball is kicking into gear. As is the Player of the Year discussion. You have your Hansbrough and Curry supporters, as well as the Blake Griffin bandwagon for the sensational soph, but it's Jodie Meeks who has been catching my eye this season (yes, before his 54-point outburst against Tennessee recently). And it seems like I've been alone on this.

Despite an early season injury, and a few hiccups so far in ACC play, Tyler Hansbrough has picked up where he left off during his junior season. With his Player of the Year award intact, as well as many other accolades, Hansbrough had little left to prove. However, back for his senior season, he looks as hungry as ever. Missing four games due to the aforementioned injury, Hansbrough was behind his peers for this year's Naismith award. He didn't waste any time getting back into the discussion. In just his third game of the season, against then-#8 Notre Dame, Tyler Hansbrough showed the world why he was Tyler Hansbrough. After dropping 34 and 5 on Luke Harangody (no slouch himself), Hansbrough hasn't looked back. Posting three double-doubles and scoring under 20 points only once since the ND game, Hansbrough is yet again "the man" for a North Carolina team poised for big things yet again. The man is a ball-magnet, as well as a "Player of the Year" discussion-magnet. I just don't believe all the talk is warranted. 

Eleven Months ago, Stephen Curry could have walked down the halls of any high school and blended in better than kids actually in high school. After his scintillating March Madness debut, the country went Curry Crazy. People wondered, despite his slight frame, if his draft stock had anywhere to go but up. With his draft position in question among NBA GMs and scouts, Curry decided to keep his sweet stroke in the college game for at least one more year, and fans of the game have to be rejoicing. Aside from a scoreless game against an unorthodox defense by Loyola (MD), Curry has not slowed one bit from March 2008. Adding point guard skills to his repertoire, Curry has evolved from elite scorer to elite player. While he hasn't gotten any bigger, stats don't lie. His scoring hasn't suffered from his newfound love of sharing the ball. Scoring 30 or more points 8 times this season makes the fact that he's averaging nearly 7 assists a game that much more special. If there was an MVP in college basketball, there is no doubt that Curry is the most valuable to his team. However, it's Player of the Year that we are discussing.

At the end of last season, it looked like Blake Griffin was destined to be another ill-advised, one-and-done freshman phenom-turned-NBA benchwarmer. Waiting until the very last minute to declare for the draft, Griffin chose to return to Norman for his sophomore year with the Sooners. While showing flashes of brilliance in his freshman campaign, it never looked like it all clicked mentally for the physically mature man-child. After nearly half a season, it's quite obvious that it's all clicking for him now. Griffin's nickname should be "The Human Double-Double," because chances are he'll put up double digits in points and rebounds on a nightly basis. In fact, he's failed to record a double-double in only 3 of 17 games thus far. He could pass for a black Mr. Clean for the way he cleans the glass, recording 20+ boards in 3 games and averaging 14 rebounds per game. Throw in his 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game, and you have a near complete player playing for a top 5 team in the country. He's another case of MVP, but his case for POY is much stronger.

Despite all of the previous players' accolades, statistics, and individual value to their teams, nothing about them should set them far apart from what Jodie Meeks is doing for the revitalized Kentucky Wildcats this year.

Just last year, Meeks was an underdeveloped 6'4'' 2-guard struggling to get his sweet shot off because of his inability to shake physically stronger defenders. A less-than-stellar sophomore year was made evident by his 8.8 points per game and 32% 3-point shooting percentage. Those underwhelming statistics coupled with his lack of physical attributes left many wondering if Meeks was nothing more than wasted talent. A 4-Star recruit out of Norcross, GA, it was easy to see that Meeks was running out of time heading into his junior year.

Knowing it was make-or-break, it's fairly obvious Meeks hit the weight room and hard, adding a lot of muscle to his previously fragile frame. What used to be a lanky 6'4'' combo guard had physically matured into a prototype NBA 2-guard. From 8.8 PPG to 26 so far this year, Meeks has been imposing his will upon opponents all season. Massive scoring outbursts combined with his fast hands on defense make me wonder how this kid isn't getting more hype (prior to the Tennessee game). On a team with a coach who demands defense, Meeks is also the lockdown defender for Billy Gillespie's Wildcats. Averaging 1.5 steals per game is just icing on the cake that is the new Jodie Meeks. Shooting an unconscious 44.4% from 3-point range and 48% from the field is a testament to the efficiency that Meeks scores those 26 points a game. Oh, and by the way, he hits is free throws at a 91.4% clip. Not too shabby there, either.

When all is said and done, a more glorious, lottery-bound player like Blake Griffin will probably end up with the hardware. While Stephen Curry steals the hearts of basketball fans and 14 year old girls alike, Tyler Hansbrough will continue to build upon his legacy not only in ACC history, but NCAA history. But don't be surprised when Meeks is the one everyone looks back on and realizes they overlooked. I'm sure some team will pay for it come March, anyway. *

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