Sports

John Clay: Meeks getting Player of the Year attention

John Clay
John Clay

These days, we're all about awards.

We're all about Kate Winslet's shock and awe at the Golden Globes, about the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, the CMAs, the VMAs, the separation of the wheat from the freaks that is American Idol.

So it's no surprise that the day after Jodie Meeks' killer night in Knoxville — you know that stunning 54-point throwdown at Thompson-Boling that helped Kentucky topple Tennessee 90-72 — all the buzz at the Wednesday after-party had to do with the fact that this humble, smiling, outrageous junior guard from Norcross, Ga., deserves some kind of award.

How about the National Player of the Year Award?

"In any legitimate conversation right now about National Player of the Year, Jodie Meeks has to be metioned with the four or five guys we've been mentioning all along," proclaimed ESPN hoops analyst Jimmy Dykes on the broadcast Tuesday night. He repeated the same sentiment via phone Wednesday.

"Jodie Meeks has to be there," said Dykes. "You don't base the National Player of the Year on just one game, you base it on the whole body of work. But the kid came in averaging over 24 points a game, the number five scorer in the country."

Then Jodie flat blew the roof off the joint.

"That," e-mailed Jim O'Connell, AP college basketball editor, "was a pretty impressive performance."

Mind-blowing, in fact. If the 10 three-pointers and 14-for-14 free throws weren't enough, don't forget the eight rebounds and four assists.

"I said it on the air (Tuesday night), he might be the most complete player that I've seen this year," Dykes said. "He can make threes. If you take that away from him, he can drive and make tough twos. He's strong. He goes off two feet around the rim. He got to the free-throw stripe 14 times. And what stands out to me about him is how hard he plays defensively."

Sounds like an All-American performance, but what about a Player of the Year performance? It's a thick field already, what with repeat champ Tyler Hansbrough out of North Carolina, and everybody's darling, Stephen Curry at Davidson, the booster-rocket start at Oklahoma by Blake Griffin, the Big East beast that has become Notre Dame's Luke Harangody.

"Tyler Hansbrough, Blake Griffin and Steph Curry started so far ahead of the pack, with James Harden just behind them, and every one of those guys is living up to the hype," Sporting News basketball expert Mike DeCourcy answered via e-mail. "Jodie Meeks made an obvious impression with the Tennessee game, and he would be at home on an All-America team with those four."

Alert: There's a "but" coming here.

"But don't forget Jodie's game came two days after Wake Forest's Jeff Teague smacked North Carolina with 34," wrote DeCourcy, "and a little more than a week after DeJuan Blair dominated Georgetown on the road. It's a long list with a lot of basketball still to sort it out."

O'Connell wrote: "Player of the Year favorites usually all come from teams near the top of the poll unless they are hanging up unbelievable numbers, and now Meeks is. Because of the SEC's TV deals, people will still get to see him, and now he'll be a regular on the highlight shows so that will help."

But the national perception is that SEC basketball stinks this season. No conference teams grace the coaches' top 25. Tennessee is likely to be bounced from the next AP poll, though Kentucky could be a top candidate for a grand entrance. Still, won't the people's perception hurt a Meeks candidacy?

"I do think the current malaise in SEC basketball could hurt Jodie's chances," DeCourcy wrote. "He'll get the opportunity to do impressive things on TV, like he did against Tennessee, but it's unlikely there'll be any one game that carries the weight of a Duke-North Carolina or Pitt-UConn. That does make a difference."

O'Connell agrees that the SEC is down, but "that has never hurt legitimate candidates in the past, and Kentucky is a name everyone runs through when thinking of the best players."

Only here's the thing you might not know unless you know this particular Kentucky team. It's not the star-studded roster of glory days' past. Maybe Billy Gillispie is so prickly about suggestions that he needs a third scorer — the coach brought it up first thing in Tuesday night's press conference — because he knows he doesn't really have a potential third scorer, so he's going to go with his strengths, put the saddles on Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks and ride as long and as far as he can.

That is what's so impressive about the Meeks magic thus far. Everyone knows Patterson is UK's Mr. Inside, Meeks is Mr. Outside — "I'm not too smart, but I get that equation," cracked Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings last week — everyone, as Gillispie pointed out Tuesday night, knows everybody's plays, especially in conference play, and yet Meeks can ... not ... be ... stopped.

"That's the same argument that people make for Stephen Curry, that he has to play with pressure every night, because if he doesn't perform, Davidson doesn't win. And Jodie Meeks is the same way," said Dykes. "I go back to the game I did in Rupp against Miami. He had an off day (10 points on 4-for-17 shooting), and they got beat. If he has a typical Jodie Meeks day, they win that ball game."

Right now, a typical Jodie Meeks day is so nationally atypical it has dropped him right smack in the middle of the awards talk, the biggest individual award of all talk.

"Jodie Meeks," said Dykes, "is on everyone's radar now."

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or (800) 950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com.

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