As a youngster growing up outside of Boston – Cambridge, Mass. to be exact – I had an opportunity to learn a great deal from watching Red Auerbach, one of the greatest coaches of all time.
Years later, while coaching at George Washington (Red's alma mater), I had the opportunity to ask him how he went about selecting his players. His answer was simple and to the point, telling me that he looked for players who have character, possess a special talent, love the game, want to get better and know how to win. He went on to say that he usually did not get the opportunity to select the most talented player or an MVP-type of scorer, so he looked for the "Most Important Player" (MIP) from winning programs – a player who did all the little things right and made a substantial, if perhaps more subtle, impact.
In honor of Red, I have selected five players worthy of the MIP title, and coincidentally each position on the floor is represented. The criteria used in my MIP selection process were:
- Talent – the ability to excel in one or more areas of the game.
- Intelligence – to be a student of the game.
- Leadership – the ability to lead oneself and team by word and/or deed.
- Heart – not afraid to fail.
- Work ethic – comes to work every day, and that includes practice.
- Intangibles – does the little things that count (takes the charge, hits the floor, cheers for teammates when he is on the bench).
- Competitive spirit – loves to compete, enjoys the pressure of big games.
- Makes those around him better
- Unselfish – team success, first priority.
- Coachable – accepts constructive criticism.
The five players I selected for MIP are: Darren Collison (sophomore point guard, UCLA); Acie Law (senior guard, Texas A&M ); Jared Dudley (senior guard/small forward, Boston College); Josh McRoberts (sophomore power forward, Duke); Aaron Gray (senior center, Pittsburgh).
- Darren Collison: If UCLA returns to the Final Four, it will be Collison, their floor leader, who gets them there. Last year's team was very good and had an exceptional point guard in Jordan Farmar, but this team is better and more dangerous with Collison at the point.
Ben Howland's Bruins can beat you with their defense, and that starts with ball pressure. With Collison setting the pace, the team exerts pressure from end line to end line, and if an opposing player gets careless with the ball, Collison will steal it (he currently leads the Pac-10 in steals).
On offense, Collison directs his teammates with precision and can deliver the ball to the right player at the right time. And when the shot clock winds down, he can beat his man off the dribble and create for himself or his teammates – whose games he has elevated (and that includes all-Pac-10 candidates Aaron Afflalo and Josh Shipp). But the area of Collison's game that has improved the most is his ability to hit the open three with accuracy and range. Plus you have to love the fact that he went to UCLA knowing that he would have to play behind Farmar and wait his turn. The wait was shorter than he expected, and it's all good for UCLA. Don't be surprised if the Bruins cut down the nets at the Final Four in Atlanta.
- Acie Law: Dick Vitale recently mentioned Acie Law as a possible Player of the Year candidate, but because of his size and the fact that Texas A&M doesn't get a lot of exposure, I don't think he will get the serious consideration he deserves. However, the MIP title was made for him. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, the knuckleball-shooting two-guard has been at A&M during the best and worst of times. When Law was a freshman, the Aggies won six games. Then Acie got a new coach in Billy Gillispie and a year later, the Aggies won 21 games. Last season they advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, and this season, many agree with me that they have a good chance to make it all the way to Atlanta.
With time and a lot of hard work, Law's leadership abilities have surfaced. He has shown a willingness to accept criticism and has transformed himself into an exceptional defender, and that's all about attitude. In fact, Coach Gillispie says that Law is the hardest-working player he has ever been around, and coming from Billy, that's quite a compliment. Sure Law could score more points if he were a ball hog, but he's not – unless the game is on the line. When that time comes Acie demands the ball and usually delivers – that's what winners do.
- Jared Dudley: As I write this, Al Skinner's Boston College Eagles are in contention for the top spot in the ACC. And the player most responsible for that is Jared Dudley, a relatively unknown player who currently leads the conference in scoring and rebounding.
At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Jared is one of the most versatile players in college basketball. He can beat you inside or out while his strength and length allows him to post up smaller players. His ability to put the ball on the floor and hit threes makes it difficult for bigger players to contain him outside. But what makes him really special is his will to win – he simply refuses to allow himself or his teammates to lose. When I asked Coach Skinner about Dudley and what he meant to the team he told me, â€œWithout Jared, we lose to Duquesne. With him we beat Virginia Tech." Enough said.
- Josh McRoberts: Last week people were talking about Duke losing four games in a row and the possibility of the Blue Devils not making the tournament. Josh McRoberts clearly didn't take all the talk to heart and has responded to the chatter as if it were a challenge. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, the sophomore has been asked to score, rebound, pass, defend and bring the ball up against the press. If that's not enough, he, like Acie Law, was asked to change his personality and become more vocal – become one of the team leaders and its go-to guy. I, for one, can't imagine where Duke would be without Josh, and I'm sure Coach Mike Krzyzewski doesn't even like to consider that scenario.
- Aaron Gray: Last but not least, is Aaron Gray, the seldom-mentioned center from Pittsburgh. His patience and work ethic have paid off, and now he is Pitt's most important player. The Panthers will go as far as Gray takes them, and that very well could be Atlanta. Ask his teammates (Levance Fields, Antonio Graves and Mike Cook), and they'll tell you that due to the extra attention opposing defenses give Gray they get a lot more room and opportunities to do their thing. The more I see of Pitt, the more I appreciate this MIP. Coach Jamie Dixon can go into a game knowing Gray is going to get him 12 to 15 points, 10 rebounds, clutch baskets, assists and, most of all, the victory.
Before I coached my first game at GW, I asked Red to autograph a portrait for the locker room. At the bottom he signed it and wrote one word – "win." And winning is what these MIP's are all about.