If the best way to judge a Player of the Year candidate is by the impact he makes on his team, then Georgia's Jarvis Hayes merits top consideration. That's the verdict of Southeastern Conference coaches.
Louisiana State coach Tom Brady, preparing for today's 4 p.m. visit from Hayes and the 18th-ranked Bulldogs, says it is easy to tell Hayes is the difference between last season's 16-15 Georgia team and this year's 19-7 squad.
"Since (Hayes) is the only player they've added, I think so,'' Brady said. "They're just better than they were a year ago. They're tougher and they play harder. It's amazing what the addition of one outstanding player will do.''
The addition of Hayes has made Georgia a season-long contender for the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division title. Georgia (tied with Kentucky for second at 8-5 in the SEC East) trails first-place Florida by one game with three games left in the regular season.
As a result, in an informal poll of SEC coaches this week, Hayes ranks among the favorites for SEC Player of the Year. Other players prominently mentioned included Alabama's Erwin Dudley and Rod Grizzard, Florida's Udonis Haslem and Matt Bonner, Tennessee's Vincent Yarbrough, Kentucky's Tayshaun Prince and LSU's Ronald Dupree.
Of the Player of the Year contenders, only Hayes is a newcomer to the league. A transfer from Western Carolina, Hayes was unknown to many of the league's coaches before he emerged as one of the league's most explosive, consistent and versatile scorers.
Entering today's game, Hayes has scored in double figures in 12 straight games. He has 12 games this year with 19 or more points, including a season-high 30 points in a Jan. 9 upset win at Kentucky.
"He's really a great player,'' said Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. "I think he's as good of a shooting guard or wing player as anyone we play. He's a special talent. He can go inside, he can go outside, he has good hands, he has speed and he has a good feel for the game.''
Hayes scored 23 and 19 points in two games against Florida, prompting Florida coach Billy Donovan to say "He may be, in my opinion, the best wing in the country, potentially.''
Donovan listed Dudley, Haslem and Hayes as his top three picks for Player of the Year "as far as the impact they've had on their basketball teams and what they mean leadership-wise.''
Coaches can't vote for their own players in the official SEC coaches balloting.
Without Hayes (6-6, 200) and his twin brother, Jonas, Georgia likely could not have made this a winning season, much less a championship-contending season.
Jonas Hayes has filled in for starting forwards Steve Thomas and Chris Daniels. Jarvis Hayes has taken the starting spot left vacant by D.A. Layne's departure.
With Hayes' consistent scoring, Ezra Williams has been able to relax without having to carry the lead role every game. Hayes and Williams have battled for the team's scoring lead while each have ranked among the league's top five scorers much of the season.
Meanwhile, sophomores Rashad Wright, Thomas and Daniels have made dramatic improvement from their freshman seasons.
Georgia has enjoyed such balance, in fact, that Coach Jim Harrick is reluctant to trumpet any one player for top honors — on his team or in the league.
"I'm not sure (Hayes) is the most valuable player on our team,'' Harrick said. "Some people might think he is. He's got good athletic ability. "When Thomas went out, Daniels was really carrying this team. And for the first part of the season, I thought Ezra was as valuable as anybody and I had some coaches tell me after the first half (of the season) when we were ahead (in the division), they'd vote for Ezra.''
Added Harrick: "We could not even field a team without Rashad Wright.'' Even so, Harrick is not surprised that Hayes has won so many admirers around the league.
"He's got a very flashy game and he is good, really good,'' Harrick said. Hayes has the versatility of draining 3-pointers from well beyond 20 feet while also soaring for highlight-worthy dunks. Hayes tends to jam at least one alley-oop pass from a teammate every game.
Harrick saw Hayes soar and score every day in practice in his redshirt year last season, so he knew what to expect this year.
Says Harrick: "About 95 percent of the time in practice last year the second team beat the first team and I knew why, because of Jarvis and Jonas Hayes.'' Now the league knows about the twins, and Jarvis could add one more surprise in the Player of the Year voting — especially if voters can't decide between Alabama's Dudley and Grizzard or Florida's Haslem and Bonner.
"It's flattering,'' Hayes said Thursday. "It's my first year here and playing in this league. There are a lot of great players in this league. It's definitely an honor.''
Hayes says he spent most of his life at Atlanta's Frederick Douglass High School and at Western Carolina playing in relative obscurity.
"That's how it has been my whole life, up until this point, never being recognized or having any hype or anything like that,'' he said. "I'm like a little kid running around in the candy store with my name being mentioned everywhere. It's new territory for me now.''
But the all-around skills of Daniels, the strong rebounding and steals from Williams, the steady leadership from Wright and the emerging talents of Thomas keep Hayes grounded.
"It's very possible I could win SEC Player of the Year and not even be the MVP of my own team,'' he said. "We've had a lot of people stepping up big this year. We've got to keep playing that way.''