A case for Mack
By Ron Chimelis, The Springfield Union-News, 2/28/2001

PHILADELPHIA - Monty Mack says it doesn't matter that much if he wins it or not. Many coaches shy away from giving it to a freshman.

And the description of the Atlantic 10 Conference men's basketball player of the year award doesn't spell out whether it should go to the best player, or the player most valuable to his team.

The winner of the coaches-only vote will be announced next week, and is based only on regular-season play. In fact, according to the Atlantic 10 office, at least one vote had already been received this week - a week before the end of the regular season.

Mack, the University of Massachusetts senior guard, is a viable candidate for player of the year, but is probably not the favorite. He insists he's never put much emphasis on individual honors, even though he has the best chance of any UMass player to win the award since Lou Roe and Marcus Camby did it back-to-back in 1995 and 1996.

"If it happens, it happens, but if it doesn't, I won't mind," Mack said before last night's game at St. Joseph's. "When another player is out there who's talented, I don't look at it as whether or not he's better than me."

The frontrunners appear to be Xavier center David West - the league's leading rebounder - St. Joseph's guards Marvin O'Connor and Jameer Nelson, and Mack. Complicating the issue is not only the candidacy of two players from the same team but the fact that Nelson is a freshman, and coaches prefer not to heap accolades on first-year players.

But Nelson's play at point guard has been the glue of the Hawks, helping define everyone else's roles on a first-place team. O'Connor is the league's No. 2 scorer with 21.1 points per game - and as a junior, he may be a more comfortable pick for some coaches.

Then there's Mack, who struggled before league play began. But the 6-foot-3 guard was also competing against one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules.

In A-10 play, Mack is averaging 21.7 points per game, and he's lifted a team with no other consistent scorer into championship contention. That raises the question of whether being named "player of the year" means being the best player, or the most valuable to his team.

"I think it's a combination of both," said UMass coach Bruiser Flint, who, like other A-10 coaches, cannot vote for his own player. "When I'm voting, I look at the statistics because some players might not have done as much when I saw them against us."

"My rule is to pick the best guy on the best team, as long as he's not a jerk," Xavier coach Skip Prosser said. Prosser hopes West will win, but can't vote for his own man.

St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli can't vote for either O'Connor or Nelson, but says if he had to choose, he'd go with O'Connor.

"I'd say Marvin because of his scoring ability, and also because he's a junior and Jameer is a freshman who will hopefully have chances to win these honors down the road," Martelli said. Nelson leads the league in assists and is averaging 12.2 points per game.

But he is also the odds-on favorite to be named A-10 rookie of the year, which might tempt coaches to honor someone else as player of the year.

"It's not just that," Martelli said. "I always lean to the guy who scores, and you can't ignore a guy who scores 20 points a game at this level."

Mack is a heavy favorite to repeat on the All-Atlantic 10 first team. Center Kitwana Rhymer, who leads the A-10 in blocked shots, may be a candidate for the third team.

Rhymer is also in the race for the Chris Daniels Most Improved Player Award, although he endured a slump in early February.

UMass guard Shannon Crooks has a chance of being named to the Atlantic 10 all-defensive team. Rhymer might, too, if good rebounding and blocked-shot numbers sway the coaches in the voting.

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