With the 2007-2008 Mid-American Conference season coming to a close, it's that time of year again as we set about naming our choices for our annual post season awards. We gathered input from coaches, athletics officials and media members from across the MAC, enlisting their aid in helping us to make some very tough choices this season.
With teams so evenly matched across the MAC, a game can come down to the contributions of a key player in crucial moments nearly every night in the conference. There were multiple candidates that we considered for each award this season and we are very pleased to recognize those whom we feel stood out, even if sometimes by a very thin margin, this season.
A note about our awards this season; in seasons past we have named a "Freshman of the Year" but starting this season we decided to retire the award for the top Frosh and instead name a "Newcomer of the Year" in which all first-year performers (i.e. true freshmen, red-shirt freshmen and JUCO transfers) would be eligible. We felt this better reflected the current state of collegiate hoops with JUCO transfers becoming such key ingredients in the recruiting process.
Of course when we decided to launch our Newcomer of the Year Award, we had no idea that the MAC's Newcomer of the Year would also wind up as Player of the Year.
We also didn't expect one school to score four of our five postseason awards but that is exactly what happened in the wake of a tremendous regular season campaign turned in by Kent State.
So without further ado, here are our choices for Player of the Year; Newcomer of the Year; Defensive Player of the Year; Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year. Also keep in mind these are strictly our awards and not the official MAC awards which will be announced at the conclusion of the regular season.
Player of the Year & Newcomer of the Year
AL FISHER - G - KENT STATE
Before the start of the season most people had never heard of Al Fisher and certainly nobody expected the transfer out of Redlands Community College to make a significant impact. Or did they?
When Kent State head coach Jim Christian was interviewed prior to the start of the season by Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, he indicated that Fisher had a "real feel for the game and can have an immediate impact." While this could have easily been dismissed as preseason talk, it turned out to be rather prophetic.
What makes Fisher's mercurial rise at Kent State even more impressive is the fact that Christian signed Fisher based on word of mouth, having never seen him play in person. Talk about catching a break. "I never saw him play live," said Christian. "I talked to his junior college coach (Steve Eck)...he had twelve division one players and told me that Al was their best guard."
Fisher made an almost immediate impact for Kent State and received the first of his league-leading four MAC East Player of the Week awards, following a two-game stretch early in the campaign when he lead the Golden Flashes to consecutive non-league wins over Youngstown State and George Mason by averaging 16.5 points. But that was only an indication of things to come as Fisher would come up big during the Flashes stretch run.
Fisher has made his biggest impact in the second half of games and on the road this season, solidifying a growing reputation as one of the toughest players in the MAC. Fisher has scored in double-digits in the second-half of 13 games this season and has averaged 20.4 points in Kent State's last eight road games. Fisher was credited with nearly single-handedly willing the Flashes to victory in their biggest victory of the season, a 65-57 triumph over 20th ranked St. Mary's in the BracketBuster.
A quick review of the current MAC statistical sheet further demonstrates the type of season that Fisher has had. Fisher currently ranks in the top ten in conference play in five categories, averaging 16.2 points per game (3rd); 4.0 assists per game (4th), .853 FT percentage (4th); .91 assist/turnover ratio (8th); and 1.6 steals per game (9th).
Fisher has led Kent State in scoring seven times this season and is the only player in the history of the Golden Flashes to be named player of the week more than twice in one season, garnering four such awards in the 2007-2008 campaign.
But statistics are only part of the story. The fact is that as Fisher elevated his game, including a run of five twenty point games on the road, and a season-high 28 points against St. Mary's, his team also made a significant move in the standings and toward a MAC title which was a fact that was not lost on an one opposing coach who told us that without Fisher he did not think Kent State could have claimed first place in the MAC East this season. And that was in response to our requesting his input on a player from his own team for potential player of the year consideration.
Respect from around the league, a dominating statistical season that led to a regular season championship and an uncanny ability to turn it on in the clutch, have convinced us that Kent State junior guard Al Fisher is the MAC Player of the Year for 2007-2008. And, oh yeah, Fisher is our choice for Newcomer of the Year as well.
Previous MAC Report Online Player of the Year winners:
2006-2007: Jerome Tillman - Ohio
2005-2006: Joe Reitz - Western Michigan
Defensive Player of the Year
HAMINN QUAINTANCE - F - KENT STATE
While there were many candidates to consider for awards this season, MAC Defensive Player of the Year was the easiest call this year. No player has dominated defensively like Kent State senior forward Haminn Quaintance as the multiple-threat performer has been an absolute menace for opposing offenses this season.
We noted in our mid-season report that no player has the ability to change a game's flow like Quaintance and that trend held true through the rest of conference play. Just ask opposing players who have been constantly harassed not just by Quaintance's shot blocking skills but by maybe the quickest set of hands in the MAC with 'Q' constantly knocking the ball out of bounds or stealing the rock from stunned opponents.
Many felt that Quaintance should have been a contender last season for Defensive Player of the Year after leading the MAC in blocked shots. Quaintance certainly picked up right where he left off...and then some.
This season Quaintance once again tops the MAC in blocked shots, averaging 2.2 blocks per game in league play, is third in both overall and defensive rebounding and has been active on the offensive glass as well, averaging 2.73 offensive rebounds per game in MAC play, good for sixth overall.
Quaintance ranks in the top fifteen nationally in both blocked shots and steals and his season total (through March 4) of 63 blocked shots is more than the team totals for Ohio (55) and Ball State (46).
But, unlike, many defensive specialists, Quaintance also brings an offensive presence to the floor.
Quaintance has established himself in the NCAA record books as being the only player in the history of the NCAA to register more than 1200 points, 850 rebounds, 250 assists, 250 blocks and 200 steals in his career. Quaintance, a senior who transferred from Jacksonville prior to his junior season, also currently ranks sixth in blocks, ninth in steals and 12th in rebounds among active NCAA players.
We don't know if he is "the most versatile player in NCAA history," as Jim Christian claims but we do know he is unquestionably the MAC Defensive Player of the Year for 2007-20008.
Previous MAC Report Online Defensive Player of the Year winners:
2006-2007: Kashif Payne- Toledo
2005-2006: Nathan Peavy - Miami
Sixth Man of the Year
CALVIN BETTS - G/F - BUFFALO
We say it every year and every year it is truer than the prior year. Collegiate hoops teams, for the most part, have gone away from standard five man starting rotations with more players sharing playing time and the role of the sixth man becoming harder to identify. However this season in the MAC there is a one player whom we believe is the essence of the sixth man.
It's been a rough year in Buffalo but that should not take away from the accomplishments of sophomore Calvin Betts who has appeared (through March 4) in all 26 games this season for the Bulls and in true sixth man fashion, has been the first man off the bench in nearly every single contest. Betts is averaging 23.9 minutes per game (second on the team) and is second on the Bulls in scoring, averaging 10.3 points per game in conference play and tops the Bulls with an average of eight rebounds per game in MAC play.
In conference play this season, Betts currently ranks in the top ten in four statistical categories, placing fourth in offensive rebounding (2.87 per game); fifth in total rebounds (8.0 per game); sixth in defensive rebounding (5.13 per game) and ninth in field goal percentage (.508).
The sophomore performer has paced the Bulls in single-game rebounding fourteen times this season, including a string of nine straight games from January 6 to February 10.
Betts, a natural guard who has been forced to play the power forward position much of this season, has recorded four double-doubles and reached double figures in scoring in ten out of fifteen conference games this season and is our choice this season for MAC Sixth Man of the Year.
Previous MAC Report Online Sixth Man of the Year winners:
2006-2007: Cedrick Middleton - Akron
2005-2006: Kevin Warzynski - Kent State
Coach of the Year
JIM CHRISTIAN - KENT STATE
Kent State head coach Jim Christian places a high premium on performance and his team has certainly become a reflection of its head coach, which may be the greatest compliment a collegiate head coach can receive, especially when that performance translates to success.
Now in his sixth season, Christian has elevated Kent State into one of the premier so-called mid-major collegiate programs in the nation. This season the Flashes have already (through March 4) matched their highest regular-season win total and if they can wrangle a win in their season-finale at Akron on March 9 will finish with a school-record 25 victories on the season. But that is just the latest in a long list of accomplishments for the Kent State program this season.
The Flashes made school history recently when they received their first regular season Top 25 ranking following a 65-57 victory over then 20th ranked St. Mary's - which was also the Golden Flashes' first regular season win over a ranked opponent - in a BracketBuster match up. Following their win the Golden Flashes cracked the Top 25 in both the AP (placing 23rd) and the ESPN/USA Today polls (24th). It was the first time that a MAC school was ranked in the Top 25 since Ball State made a four-week run in 2001.
Kent State under Christian this season wrapped up its second MAC East title in three seasons as well as the top seed for the second time in three seasons heading into the MAC Tournament in Cleveland.
Sometimes though the words of a team's players are the best testament to a coach's impact. "Kent's all about fitting in," senior forward Mike Scott recently told ESPN.com's Kyle Whelliston. "It's about being in the system, knowing your role and playing it as best as you can. Coach knows that guys have egos coming out of high school and he knows how to mold them into something that will fit this program. But every player still gets to have their own personal shine."
It's a tricky balancing act, but one that Christian's players have clearly bought into and are willing to sacrifice, on and off the court, to win a championship. "These are our badges of honor, Scott told the Record Courier after Kent State's MAC East clinching win over Miami recently, discussing the various scrapes and scars the players have accumulated this season. "When you got those, it means you play hard."
Playing hard has been a hallmark of Christian's team this season which has shown a flair for offensive firepower but has really made its mark this season with defensive intensity.
Christian's in-game coaching has clicked as well this year with the team not being afraid to change things up such as going to a 2-3 zone for several frustrating transitional moments during games this season. But his top accomplishment has been in keeping the team on track while working in some new parts.
The development of JUCO transfer guard Al Fisher has been one of the top stories of the season and the continued development of Haminn Quaintance, who has added scoring touch to his defensive prowess, have been keys to the team's ongoing development while Christian has also overseen the leadership development of players such as senior forward Mike Scott.
The team had its share of distractions earlier in the year that could have potentially torn the team apart, with a suspension to Chris Singletary and off-court matters that impacted the play of Rodriquez Sherman but Christian has been able to keep the team focused and on track while also keeping players such as junior forward Julien Sullinger engaged despite decreased playing time and a decreased role.
Ask any coach and they will tell you that it goes beyond x's and o's with the toughest aspect sometimes just keeping a team on the same page and focused on a single goal. Christian appears to have found that balance this season.
Heading into the season finale, Christian's Golden Flashes are close to wrapping up a bid to the NCAA Tournament with an RPI of 34 and quality wins over St. Mary's, George Mason, Illinois State and Cleveland State in non-conference play.
With a first-place finish, and a record-setting regular season campaign, Jim Christian is our choice for 2007-2008 MAC Coach of the Year.
Previous MAC Report Online Coach of the Year winners:
2006-2007: Stan Joplin - Toledo
2005-2006: Keith Dambrot - Akron