With some hesitation, I voted for Georgia guard J.J. Frazier as the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
The belief that a Player of the Year should play for the championship team compels a vote for Malik Monk. His spectacular scoring sprees sparked Kentucky’s first-place finish and made for must-see TV. But UK’s latest league title seemed the product of multiple options overcoming individual inconsistencies.
Georgia did not finish among the top four in the regular-season race. However, a review of history made voting for Frazier easier. In the 52 years the SEC has had a Player of the Year, he came from a team that did not win the championship 25 times. Most conspicuously, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope won it in 2013 even though Georgia finished tied for eighth. Johnny Neumann won it in 1971 when Ole Miss finished eighth. Pete Maravich (1969) and Reggie King (1978) won it playing for LSU and Alabama teams that finished seventh in those seasons.
And in 2014-15, when Kentucky was undefeated champion of the league’s regular season and tournament, the media and SEC coaches each voted Bobby Portis of second-place Arkansas the Player of the Year.
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If you base a vote on who was his team’s most indispensable player, Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina would be a worthy choice. Going into the regular season’s final week, he was the top scorer in league play (21.9 ppg) and led SEC players in steals (2.5 per game). He was also among the top six in rebounding (No. 5 at 7.6 rpg), free-throw accuracy (No. 6 at 84.2 percent) and minutes (No. 3 at 34.8 mpg). And South Carolina had a better SEC record than Georgia.
But, Frazier, who is listed at 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds, was arguably just as indispensable, plus he embodied a hard-to-resist David-and-Goliath element. And like last year’s SEC Player of the Year, Tyler Ulis of Kentucky, he inspired better play from teammates and usually was a thought ahead of everyone else on the court.
Two weekends ago, Kentucky saw first-hand how Frazier became Georgia’s go-to guy and glue-guy. Leading scorer Yante Maten suffered a serious knee sprain 95 seconds into the Feb. 18 game against UK. Frazier filled the vacuum. His 36 points were the most scored against UK this season.
“J.J. was ridiculous,” UK Coach John Calipari said afterward, “and controlled the whole game.”
Late in the game, Calipari paid Frazier the ultimate compliment. He ordered a double-team near mid-court in order to get the ball out of Frazier’s hands. Calipari was not the only SEC coach to take that step.
On that night and others before and since, Frazier personified the message Calipari has been preaching to his players all season: Fight. Battle. Make winning plays. Refuse to lose.
Georgia’s hard-luck season (Maten’s injury was only one of many discouragements) made Frazier’s productive perseverance all the more impressive.
On Wednesday, Frazier’s 31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals led Georgia to a 79-78 victory over Auburn. The Bulldogs (18-12) remained hopeful of an NCAA Tournament bid as Maten remained on the bench.
“Our team without Yante, we’re just gluing it together,” Georgia Coach Mark Fox said afterward. “J.J.’s our superglue.”
A former two-star prospect, Frazier scored 11 of Georgia’s final 12 points in a 60-55 victory at Alabama on Feb. 23.
In the final seconds two nights later, he twice split defenders in a length-of-the-court drive that resulted in getting fouled. He made two free throws with 1.6 seconds left to give Georgia an 82-80 victory over LSU.
“J.J., he just has such a big competitive heart,” Fox said after the victory over LSU.
Oh, and Frazier played the final 6:21 of that game with four fouls.
Of his decision to keep Frazier on the court, Fox said, “I figured J.J. Frazier would rather die on the court than not be out there trying to win.”
That’s a pretty good label for any SEC Player of the Year.
One man, one vote
In addition to J.J. Frazier of Georgia, the ballot’s All-SEC team included three other obvious picks: Malik Monk of UK, Sindarius Thornwell of South Carolina and KeVaughn Allen of Florida.
That fifth spot turned up the indecision. Senior Moses Kingsley of Arkansas? Freshman Robert Williams of Texas A&M? The numbers were nearly identical going into the final week. In games against UK in early January, Kingsley had more points (14-8) and rebounds (7-2). But Williams’ four blocks remain a high for a UK opponent this season.
Kingsley is steak. Williams is sizzle. The vote went to . . . sizzle.
Coach of the Year is always an uncomfortable decision. The vote for one coach wrongly implies a discounting of the other 13. The mental fatigue induced by Frazier for Player of the Year and then Kingsley-or-Williams led to a safe pick: John Calipari of Kentucky.
True (Blue) romance
Derek Willis’ wedding proposal during Senior Night charmed Dianne Kron.
“That was so cute,” she said later in the week. “I thought it was adorable. I think it takes a lot of guts to do that in front of all those people.”
Kron also reflected on how much UK basketball’s view of romance has changed. Her engagement to Rupp Runt Tommy Kron was nothing like Willis dropping to a knee near center court and asking his girlfriend, Keely Potts, to marry him.
“You certainly couldn’t have gotten away with anything like that,” Kron said of her engagement.
Adoph Rupp wanted the players concentrating on basketball, not something as frivolous as finding a life partner. “His belief was you were there to play basketball,” Dianne said. “That was pretty much it.”
She made Rupp’s Kentucky basketball program sound like a police state.
“Tom was in a fraternity,” Dianne said. “And if we went to a fraternity party, Coach Rupp knew about it. He knew when we got there. He knew when we left. I think he actually had people out watching. We knew that whatever we did, he’d know whatever it was because somebody was reporting.”
Affairs of the heart were kept out of public view. As chronicled in David Kingsley Snell’s book, “The Baron & The Bear,” Tommy’s engagement to Dianne involved subterfuge.
“There was no way we could have publicly been seen looking for an engagement ring,” Dianne said. Because Tom knew the owner of a Lexington jewelry store, “they opened up for us after hours so we could go looking at rings,” she said.
Rupp required players to stay in Lexington during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tom would sneak off to see Dianne at her parents’ home in Frankfort. He always traveled on Old Frankfort Pike.
“Because his chances of getting seen were a lot less,” Dianne said.
When asked if the secrecy made the romance more exciting, Dianne said, “Oh, I’m sure it did. It was much more fun than being able to just be blatantly out in the open.”
Big Ten profile shrinking
While the SEC tries mightily to raise its basketball profile, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that there was no Big Ten team in the top 10 of The Associated Press college basketball poll last week. The only two Big Ten teams in the top 25 were No. 16 Purdue and No. 22 Wisconsin.
It seems possible that no Big Ten team will be in the top four seed lines come Selection Sunday. By comparison, the SEC looks pretty good.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, the Big Ten has failed to have a top-four seed team once: 2004. The high of five teams in such a position came in 2012.
No Big Ten team has won the NCAA Tournament since Michigan State in 2000. That was the Big Ten’s only champion since Michigan in 1989.
Before and since Michigan State in 2000, SEC teams won the national championship in 1994 (Arkansas), 1996 (Kentucky), 1998 (Kentucky), 2006 (Florida), 2007 (Florida) and 2012 (Kentucky).
For glass-half-full people: Six different Big Ten schools have played in a national championship game since 2002: Indiana (2002), Illinois (2005), Ohio State (2007), Michigan State (2009), Michigan (2013) and Wisconsin (2015).
Before Kentucky’s first game at the SEC Tournament on Friday, the Greater Nashville UK Alumni Club will stage a pep rally at the Wildhorse Saloon (120 Second Ave. North). The rally will begin at 10 a.m. EST.
Cost is $10 for members and students, and $15 for non-members. Children 12 and under are admitted for free.
The “Countdown to Tipoff Show” will be broadcast from the pep rally.
Kentucky’s first SEC Tournament game is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. EST on Friday.
Go-Go Big Blue?
Herald-Leader columnist Mark Story’s update on Rupp Arena dancer Darren Moscoe inspired reader Alan Bohanon.
Bohanon, a retired teacher in Campbellsville, called to say how he missed Moscoe’s dancing to the song “Mony Mony” at UK home games. The dancing stopped late last season with Moscoe’s ill-advised attempt to slide down a railing while holding a 10-year-old girl.
“We all love watching him dance,” Bohanon said. “Why not put a booth for him to dance in?”
Bill Owen, CEO and president of Lexington Center Corp., said UK would make the decision about adding a go-go dancing booth for Moscoe.
To Florida Coach Mike White. He turned 40 on Thursday. . . . To former Louisville Coach Denny Crum. He turned 80 on Thursday. . . . To Tom Leach. The voice of the Wildcats turned 56 on Friday. . . . To Dale Barnstable. He turned 92 on Saturday. . . . To Shaquille O’Neal. He turns 45 on Monday.