BY Bob Sherwin 11:08PM 02/01/2011

Thomas ‘would love to win’ Player of the Year

Huskies’ Thomas, Cougars’ Thompson and Wildcats’ Williams among the top three candidates at the Pac-10′s halfway point.

Heading into the second half of conference play Washington point guard Isaiah Thomas is in a three-player chase for Player of the Year. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

One player leads the Pac-10 in scoring, another leads in assists and a third in field-goal and three-point shooting percentage. How do you pick the conference Player of the Year from three diverse players such as Washington State’s Klay Thompson, Washington’s Isaiah Thomas and Arizona’s Derrick Williams?

That award ultimately will be voted on by the 10 coaches, with the caveat that they can’t vote for their own players. It’s the halfway point of the conference season, so all the coaches have had at least one look at the candidates, which, at this point, is a short list of three.

“Typically, the MVP is the best player on the best team but sometimes that’s not the case,” Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said Tuesday in the Pac-10 coaches’ conference call. “So I try to weigh a lot of things. What affects me perhaps more than other coaches is how well a player plays against my team because that’s an easy one for me to look at. You see an entire game of that player and see what he can do, two or maybe three times a year.

“So for me it’s not necessarily the best basketball player from the team that wins the championship.”

He puts those three players, Thomas, Thompson and Williams as his top three entering the second half.

UCLA’s Ben Howland’s approach runs counter to Robinson. He’s more influenced by the elite players on elite teams, and, thus, mixes and matches his top three.

“Typically, what I look at when I vote for Player of the Year, I almost always vote for the guy on the team in first place. There are two teams tied there at 7-2 (Washington/Arizona),” Howland said. “I think there’s really a couple candidates. I’d would say Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning are both candidates and Derrick Williams at Arizona. It’ll be one of those three candidates, they would get my vote.”

Asked if Thompson figures in there, Howland said, “he’s having a great year.” But since the Cougars are in fourth place, he doesn’t put the same value on his candidacy.

Thomas is the best player and leader of the Huskies so Bryan-Amaning does not have widespread support. That may change, but at this point, with nine games to go, it’s down to Thomas, Thompson and Williams.

But that’s a little like comparing apples to oranges to peaches. It all depends on the value placed on various aspects of their games. They are three different players.

Thomas, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound junior point guard, leads the conference in assists (5.75), is third in scoring (17.1) and third in assists-to-turnovers (2.09). He’s shooting 45.1 percent, 36.2 from 3-point range, is a 74.2 free-throw shooter with a 3.8 rebounds per game and adds 1.5 steals to boot.

Williams, a 6-8, 240-pound sophomore forward, is first in the conference in shooting, both field-goal percentage (63.8) and 3-point (70.6). He is second in scoring (19.8), a 74.5 percent free-throw shooter – getting to the line an amazing 212 times — and averages 7.6 rebounds, 15 blocks and 1.1 steals.

Thompson, a 6-6, 202-pound junior guard, ranks first in the conference in scoring (22.3), third in assists (4.38) and third in steals (2.0). He is shooting 46.4 percent for the floor, 43 percent from 3-point range and is an 80.7 percent free-throw shooter. Thompson also averages 5.3 rebounds per game and 1.1 blocks.

“I’m always impressed with players that are not only good themselves but make everyone else better,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “I don’t know if Klay did that the last couple years. Now he makes everyone else better. He puts tremendous pressure on you because you fight like crazy to get over the screen, then he’ll drive you or get to the foul line. He’ll dish the ball off and he’s a good passer.

“I think Derrick Williams is a very hard guy to game plan for. He really puts pressure on you.”

But Romar said it’s up to each coach to place his own set of values that will determine the top player. Those values vary widely.

“I watched guard Shaun Livingston (now with Charlotte Hornets) play an all-star game and he took five shots but he dominated the game,” Romar said. “It seemed like every player on his team scored 25 with a number of highlight dunks because he set them up. He was clearly the best player on the floor so it doesn’t always mean points.

“It’s debatable but winning is pretty important also.”

You can substitute Thomas into that story. After he took over the point guard spot from injured Abdul Gaddy on Jan. 6, he has been on a mission to make his teammates better, such as Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday. He has averaged 8.6 assists – and 20 points – over the past six games. But he also hasn’t played well in the Huskies’ five losses, shooting just 39.1 percent – well below his 46.6 percent in victories.

Thompson clearly is on his way to the scoring title this season. He can score in bunches and with variety. But he has shown vulnerability. He missed a 10-footer a week ago at the buzzer that could have beaten Arizona. He also has 71 turnovers, almost double anyone else on his team.

Williams is a load inside and hard to handle but he also has a season-long problem with foul trouble. He fouled out twice this season and spends more time than desired on the bench to prevent a fifth foul. His 70.6 3-point percentage is impressive, but it’s based on just 34 attempts (making 24). Most of the players among the top 10 have twice that many attempts.

A Washington player has won Player of the Year honors just twice, Brandon Roy (2006) and Chistian Welp (1986).

“I think about it a little bit,” Thomas said. “It’s in my head. I would love to win it. But at the same time, whatever is best for this team. If we win the championship and I don’t get it, I’m happy that we won the championship.”

There are strengths and weakness among all the candidates but, ironically, the top individual honor in the league this season likely will come down to which team ends up on top.

Adjusting to the tie
For those who believed that the Huskies were good enough to hold off any and all Pac-10 challengers, especially after their 85-68 victory over Arizona a couple weeks ago, it’s not a cakewalk. Look at this, a tie atop the Pac-10.

UW (15-5) and Arizona (18-4) each have 7-2 conference records halfway through the first half.

So what’s ahead? Washington may have a slight edge in that it plays five of its final nine conference games at home. Arizona plays four of nine at home. However, the Huskies have to play at McKale Center Feb. 19. That’s a tough place for an opponent to win – the Wildcats are 13-0 there – and it may be the deciding factor in the title chase.

This next week or so could change the complexion. Both Arizona and Washington have three consecutive road games. Washington, which lost at WSU Sunday, plays at the Oregon schools this week. Arizona plays at the Bay Area schools followed by rival Arizona State a week from Sunday.

Arizona also has to play the L.A. schools on the road in three weeks. UCLA (14-7, 6-3) is only going to get better. The Bruins are 10-2 at home.

The Huskies finish with three consecutive games at Hec Ed – where they are 11-0 – against WSU, UCLA and USC.


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