Morris: SEC MVP a matter of heart or head

February 28, 2010 

If you are voting with your heart, Devan Downey is the runaway winner for SEC player of the year. He does more with his talent than perhaps any player in the country. At 5-foot-9, he often plays like the biggest man on the court.

How can you not side with a player who, despite his vertical liability, not only leads the conference in scoring but competes with a heart bigger than the arenas he plays in? Downey single-handedly injected the "life" back into USC's Colonial Life Arena this season.

Unfortunately for Downey and USC fans, the SEC player of the year does not go to the crowd favorite. It goes instead to the best overall player. So, let's examine the race with our heads instead of our hearts.

In addition to Downey, Kentucky's dynamic freshman duo of 6-4 guard John Wall and 6-11 forward DeMarcus Cousins have emerged as the leading candidates for the honors. And I do mean honors, since the SEC inexplicably continues to recognize a winner named by the league coaches as well as by The Associated Press.

Scoring matters since the ultimate object is to put the ball in the hoop. So, give Downey full credit for averaging a league-leading 22.9 points per game. Wall averages 16.7 and Cousins 16.3.

Of course, we all know from watching SEC games that Downey attempts many more shots than either Wall or Cousins. The question is whether Wall and/or Cousins would match Downey's scoring if they averaged the same 25 shots (field goals plus free throws) per game that Downey does.

USA Today has come up with several different formulas to determine a player's efficiency, and one of those is called "points per shot." You take the total points a player has scored and divide it by the number of shot attempts (field goals plus free throws) and get a points-per-shot number.

Using this formula, Wall and Cousins would average slightly more points per game than Downey if all three attempted the same number of shots. Wall comes in first with 0.92 points per shot, followed closely by Cousins at 0.91 and Downey at 0.90.

There is not a lot of difference between the three. So, in determining player of the year, you can probably throw out scoring average as a factor.

The other USA Today formulas become more difficult to use because Cousins plays a different position from Downey and Wall. You can't place the same value on rebounding as you do on accumulating assists because they are not comparable categories.

To make the formulas relevant, Downey and Wall must be separated from Cousins. Comparing Downey and Wall we can determine statistically who is the better shooter and who has the best hands, or the best overall floor game.

Wall and Downey essentially are the same shooter, according to the USA Today formula which adds a player's shooting percentage for field goals, free throws and 3-pointers. Downey's total percentage is 157.9 and Wall's is 157.3. Again, this factor is a wash, so throw it out.

As for having the best hands, or best floor game, Wall comes out ahead. Downey leads the SEC in steals and has 26 more than Wall. But Wall's 167 assists outshine Downey's total of 95. The best-hands rating, according to USA Today's formula, has Wall at 1.57 and Downey at 1.20.

One could argue that Downey has elevated his play when it counted most and Wall shined brightest in the non-conference schedule when he won two games with last-second shots. Unfortunately for Downey, the award is given to the player of the year, not the player of the conference season.

So, in summary, we have two categories (scoring and shooting) where the two are virtually even and a third where Wall is significantly better. So, how does Cousins fit into the analysis?

Well, he does not. All we can really go on his raw numbers, and they are spectacular. He is averaging a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. He has reached double figures in scoring and rebounding in 17 of Kentucky's 28 games. Nine times in 13 conference games Cousins has recorded a double-double.

Those numbers tell us that Cousins probably has been the most dominant player of the three candidates. Darrin Horn, USC's coach, said Cousins is the best post player he has seen in 15 years of coaching.

One other factor should come into play when considering the player-of-the-year candidates - a player's value to his team.

An NBA scout recently told me he judges a player's value to his team by how he elevates the game of his teammates. The scout said Wall would lead that category because his strength is in making all of his teammates better. Cousins and Downey would fall behind, according to the scout.

Part of a player's value to his team also equates to winning. Wall and Cousins play on the No. 2-ranked team in the country, one whose only loss in the first 28 games was at South Carolina. Downey plays on a less-talented team that is likely to finish below .500 in the SEC. From a historical perspective, that does not bode well for Downey.

If the voting came down to a popularity contest, Downey would win because he has captured the hearts of fans across the conference. It is not, however, a popularity contest.

In the final analysis, Wall and Cousins are more deserving. Maybe USC fans can pull for a split vote among the Kentucky duo, and Downey could slide in as the winner.

Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)

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