Is John Lucas the MVP of the Big 12

When Texas Tech senior Andre Emmett became the first player in league history to win Player of the Week five times in one season it was assumed Emmett would be the runaway winner for Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. <BR><BR> Not so fast. <BR><BR> Talk to coaches around the league, and Oklahoma State guard John Lucas III has emerged as a serious candidate to overtake Emmett for the conference's top individual award.

The most compelling statement was made by Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, who said he would vote for Lucas over Emmett.

"John Lucas, in my mind, is the most valuable player in the Big 12 because he has his team where it is because of his on-the-court leadership," Knight said. "There's no kid in this league I would rather watch play at this moment than John Lucas."

Emmett has the most impressive stats. An all-Big 12 selection last year as a junior, Emmett recently became the league's all-time scoring leader, surpassing Kansas' Nick Collison.

But if you compare statistics from conference games only, it's easy to make a strong argument for Lucas, who transferred to OSU late last summer. Led by Lucas, the Cowboys have staged an incredible run that could lead to their first Big 12 championship.

"Emmett is a great player," said OSU coach Eddie Sutton. "It's amazing the number of points he's scored in his career. But (Lucas) is a strong candidate if we win the league. I've always thought the most valuable player, most of the time, should come off one of the top two teams in the league if at all possible.

"That's not downgrading Emmett. I would have no problem with Emmett winning Player of the Year. Lucas, though, certainly has some great credentials."

Emmett leads the Big 12 in scoring, averaging 22 points. Lucas is averaging 14.3 points overall. But in Big 12 play, Lucas has averaged nearly 18 points.

Throw in Lucas is second in the league in assists and free-throw percentage, is third in 3-point baskets and led the Big 12 in assists-to-turnover ratio much of the season and Lucas could be the favorite, especially since he led a team that was picked fifth in preseason polls to the brink of a league championship.

Meanwhile, Texas Tech has fallen out of the race and is fighting with several teams just to earn a first-round bye in the Big 12 tournament.

"Lucas is making a great run," said ESPN analyst Dick Vitale. "Some people will disagree with me, but I think he's making a strong run for player of the year. It looks like Andre Emmett, but the way Lucas has come on, he's got to be given consideration. He's been the catalyst and key for Eddie's team."

Several Big 12 coaches said you must play all 16 league games before reaching a decision. But read between the lines and it's apparent Lucas certainly will garner a lot of attention.

"(Lucas) will get a lot of votes," said Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "He's gotten better. It wasn't like the guy came from nowhere. The better players you put around him the better he is. He's getting a lot more freedom. They have five guys who can hit you for double figures, but he's been the difference for O-State."

Texas coach Rick Barnes said Lucas impressed him during his two seasons at Baylor but has taken his game to another level this season under Sutton and his staff. "I thought (Lucas) was an awfully good player at Baylor, and he's been very good (at OSU)," Barnes said. "Eddie and his staff have done a great job of fitting him into that system. But he's not new to this league. As coaches, I don't think any of us are probably surprised. When you saw how many minutes he played his first two years I think you would expect him to be doing some of the things he's been doing."

Sutton, though, is surprised. Sutton admitted the day Lucas arrived on campus that Lucas, a 5-foot-10 junior, filled a major void. Sutton projected Lucas could have a significant impact. OSU's staff quickly discovered Lucas was a better shooter than they thought. Lucas also displayed good quickness.

But Lucas' consistent production has been a pleasant surprise. "He's a lot better player than I remember playing against him," Sutton said. "He's playing with players who are a little more disciplined. He's like any coach's son. He knows how the game should be played. If he gets a little tougher defensively he'll really be a special player."

To analyze Lucas' worth one must go beyond the statistics. Numerous times this season, Lucas has supplied a crucial 3-point basket or taken his game to another level in big games. Lucas was instrumental in the comeback win at Kansas State, a game that helped build momentum early in the conference race. The following weekend, Lucas twice helped the Cowboys protect a late-game lead at Texas.

In the win over the Longhorns, Lucas twice dribbled out the shot clock. Terrence Crawford grabbed an offensive rebound to maintain possession. After a timeout, Lucas once again milked the shot clock and zipped a pass through the lane to a wide open Crawford. It proved to be the game-clinching basket with 27 seconds left.

One of his biggest highlights from a season full of big plays was when Lucas hit a half-court shot at the first-half buzzer that lifted OSU to a much-needed road win at Arkansas five days before Christmas. Lucas also has hit first-half 3-point buzzer beaters against Texas A&M and Iowa State.

That doesn't include several momentum-changing 3-pointers. Lucas' trey in the second half of a win in Ames stopped a Cyclone rally as OSU handed Iowa State its only home loss. Lucas also hit a big second-half 3-pointer to produce a similar crowd-deflating basket in the win at Oklahoma.

"I don't know if there's a player in this league who is more valuable than he is to us," said associate head coach Sean Sutton. "He's making shots and shooting the ball well. I don't think there's a point guard in the country who is running their team any better. He's not running everything to perfection, but he's pretty darn close."

Lucas' clutch baskets receive the most attention but OSU's coaches are most pleased with the way Lucas has limited his turnovers. Lucas had 115 turnovers in two seasons at Baylor but is averaging only 1.3 turnovers a game with the Cowboys.

"We've really been impressed with his decision making," Sean Sutton said. "He doesn't turn the ball over. He makes tough plays on the road. That's what you want from your point guard, a clutch player who wants the ball in his hands."

Part of Lucas' maturation can be attributed to being the son of John Lucas Jr., the former NBA point guard and former NBA coach. Lucas spent the summer working with his father. They worked out three times a day.

But Lucas Jr. is the first to admit the Suttons and assistant coaches James Dickey and Glynn Cyprien have had a major impact on his son's development. Lucas III is a much better defensive player. He's also been outstanding running the offense while minimizing mistakes.

"John has a quiet confidence that wasn't there last year," his father said. "He's found his niche in coach Sutton's system. John is grateful they showed interest in him. He has great pride playing for OSU. That's the biggest thing. He has such respect for that staff and that school."

Lucas' improvement is a testament to his work ethic. Coach Dickey said he has been impressed with how many players stay late into the night to work on their shot, on their own, long after practice. No one, though, works harder than Lucas.

"He's a gym rat," Dickey said. "He sets a number every day, whether it's 500, 600 or 700 a day. He'll shoot until he makes that many. You combine his work ethic with the way coach Sutton and Sean coach the game, I'm not surprised at all the way he's elevated his game."

Kansas State coach Jim Wooldridge said he would hate to have to choose between Emmett and Lucas.

"Both of them are outstanding," Wooldridge said. "If you took either Andre Emmett off the floor or John Lucas off the floor what kind of year would both of those teams had? Would they be as strong as they are? Obviously not. They're both MVP candidates."

What gives Lucas a legitimate shot at the award is OSU could finish four or five games ahead of the Red Raiders in the conference standings. The Cowboys are ranked in the top 10 nationally while Texas Tech might fall out of the top 25 before postseason play gets under way.

"He continues to amaze me," said Eddie Sutton. "You look at him and he's so small. But he's a gutsy player. He's pretty good. He's surpassed what all of us thought he would do in his first year with us.

"You can't ever underestimate the value of John Lucas. He's made us such a better basketball team. He hits big baskets and runs our team so well. We wouldn't have near as many wins if we didn't have him."

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