[b][b]McMillin: League's stars stayed the course, for all 4 years[/b]
By Zack McMillin
March 10, 2005
Rick Pitino had just left the podium, having accepted the Conference USA coach of the Year award, and now it was time for Charlotte’s Eddie Basden to accept perhaps the most unlikely Player of the Year award in the 10-year history of the league.
The door opened and a Charlotte 49er player, wearing loose warmups, came through.
And another. And another.
The entire Charlotte contingent – trainers, managers, assistant coaches – filed through before the man of the moment, as unassuming as Pitino is flashy, finally took a left turn to take the stage.
This is not to say Eddie Basden did not deserve C-USA’s 2005 Player of the Year award. The league is lucky to have as its MVP such a complete player.
It’s just that Basden doesn’t fit the mold of a modern major-college superstar.
He’s a fourth-year senior, for one thing.
He’s a fourth-year senior who didn’t sign with Charlotte until after his senior season in high school, a player who followed an old-fashioned college basketball path to dominance.
Players who average 4.3 points as a freshmen and 6.3 points as sophomores, nowadays anyway, aren’t supposed to aspire to greatness.
Players that stick around for four years of college? Aren’t they considered washed up?
Not necessarily, and Wednesday morning, at Memphis’s spanking new NBA arena, Basden was just one of several Conference USA players proving that there is still a place in college basketball for great four-year players.
“I think it shows what the college experience is about,” said Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz.
Lutz was talking about Basden, but the statement fits many of the players who make this C-USA Tournament more watchable than the attendance would indicate.
Preceding Basden on stage were Louisville seniors Larry O’Bannon and Ellis Myles.
O’Bannon, who averaged 3.5 points his first two seasons, is averaging 15.1 points per game as a senior.
His teammate, Myles, ought to have earned a lifetime achievement award for what he gave Louisville since becoming a starter as a raw freshman, in Denny Crum’s farewell season. He dropped 30 pounds and 9 percent body fat when Pitino arrived, in 2001. He survived a gruesome knee injury his junior season, sat out last season, came back to win a championship.
"It’s been a real great year just for me to be around to win a regular-season championship when a lot of people would say I wouldn’t be here,’’ Myles said Wednesday.
There were other examples on Wednesday, too. The Memphis troika of Anthony Rice, Arthur Barclay and Duane Erwin, all of them defining success in their own ways.
One of the saddest sights on Wednesday was Marquette’s fine senior, Travis Diener, sitting on the bench, his left hand in a cast, watching the Golden Eagles’ once-promising season come to an end.
That brought to mind the last C-USA Tournament played in Memphis, and the freak injury that ended the brilliant senior season of Cincinnati’s Kenyon Martin.
Bob Huggins, the UC coach Memphis fans love to hate, was talking about that awful moment from the 2000 event on Wednesday.
Martin, too, was a fourth-year senior, a player who came back despite the NBA projecting him to go between 18th and 22nd in the first round of the 1999 draft.
"The only reason he came back was because he had a closeness with his teammates, and he wanted to win a national championship,’’ Huggins said "When I walked out on the floor, that was the first thing he said.
“It hit us all hard.”
Cincinnati would lose that quarterfinal game to St. Louis then bow out of the NCAAs in the second round.
Tragic story, right? A reason for any talented junior to think even harder about foregoing that senior season.
Not only had Martin improved so much that he became the first pick in the draft despite the broken leg, he got something perhaps as valuable the big NBA contract he eventually earned.
“When he went home, the affection the community showed for him was unbelievable,” Huggins said. “I walked in the office and we had (so many) flowers and cards and things, you’d have thought he died.”
Which brings us back to Basden, and the media room at the FedEx Forum, and a couple dozen 49ers breaking all sorts of press room protocol by giving their teammate a long ovation.
In the Charlotte notes package, there is a quote from Jay Bilas, the ESPN analyst who played at Duke back when staying in school for four years was fashionable: “Basden is sort of the poster boy for staying in college four years.”
Nice thing about this C-USA Tournament, Basden isn’t alone on that poster. [/b]