It took four years for Utah center Luke Nevill to quiet the criticism that he was a 7-foot-2-inch, 265-pound underachiever. He stood head and shoulders above the crowd but seldom was a standout as he made progress seemingly at the pace of his lumbering stride.
"I definitely thought I had the potential," Nevill said. "I knew that I had it in me."
And he finally proved it to the rest of the Mountain West Conference, earning Player of the Year honors.
The Utes tied for the conference title with Brigham Young and New Mexico. All three teams feature star seniors — the Cougars are led by guard Lee Cummard and the Lobos by guard Tony Danridge.
Nevill came out ahead in voting by the conference’s nine head coaches and a media panel, and as UNLV coach Lon Kruger said, "I have no argument with Nevill getting it."
But when anything is decided by a vote, there could be an argument. Opinions lead to debates. Opinions supported by statistics can settle debates.
In this case, the "Bird Points" system will be used as a guide. Former NBA great Larry Bird revealed several years ago his statistical method for rating basketball players, and it’s a much simpler formula than what the NFL uses to rate the passing efficiency for quarterbacks.
Bird’s system goes like this: Players get one point for each point, rebound, assist, steal and block, and one point is subtracted for each missed field goal, missed free throw and turnover.
The method was applied to the top players in the Mountain West to determine who’s best and who’s overrated and underrated, at least in statistical terms.
As it turns out, Nevill is the winner again. In conference games only, he totaled 489 positive points for points scored (267), rebounds (153), assists (16), steals (3) and blocks (50) and 125 negative points for missed field goals (64), missed free throws (19) and turnovers (42).
Nevill’s 364 net points, an average of 22.8 over 16 games, beat out Cummard (322, 20.1). Wyoming senior guard Brandon Ewing (285, 17.8), BYU sophomore guard Jimmer Fredette (271, 16.9) and Danridge (259, 16.2) rounded out the top five.
Utah coach Jim Boylen was asked how he determines who the top player is when there are multiple candidates in a tight race.
"It’s a guy who plays both ends, a guy who’s not a one-dimensional player, and winning is important," Boylen said. "If you look at statistics, if you look at winning, if you look at how other teams prepare for him, Luke is a very worthy Player of the Year candidate.
"He has dominated the league defensively. He has been a dominating player at both ends. Luke just rolling down the lane without the ball makes it hard on the defense. How do you measure that? I think stats are one piece of it, they are a tool, but there’s more to it than that."
Nevill is the league’s only truly dominant center. Eliminate him from the equation, and the MWC is ruled mostly by guards and small forwards, with Cummard ranking as the best of the rest.
"I would say Cummard is the most complete player, maybe not the best player, but the most complete," Ewing said. "He rebounds, defends, and he can score when his team needs him to score. He does it all.
"You look at the box score and he’s got 25 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals, and that’s a complete game."
Ewing said he prides himself on being an efficient player, and he rates No. 3 in the conference on the "Bird Points" scale.
"I believe I’m a true point guard," Ewing said. "I go out to get 15 to 20 points, make sure my teammates are happy and put my team in position to win. I know a lot of players are scoring 25 points, but they take 30 shots to get 25 points."
UNLV senior guard Wink Adams was voted second team all-conference, but he is tied for 25th on the "Bird Points" list, slipping so low because of his 122 missed field goals.
The Rebels’ highest-ranking player is senior swingman Rene Rougeau, tied for eighth.
"Rene’s versatility has been huge to us because he’s a mismatch," Kruger said. "Offensively, he can drive the ball at big guys, he can post smaller guys, and he’s a good rebounder. Defensively, he can guard the ball or guard bigger guys in the low post."
Nevill put the Utes over the top this season, but he credited Boylen, in his second year, for boosting his development into the league’s best.
"When Boylen got here, we had a different mentality as a team. We practiced a lot harder, and the focus was on defense," Nevill said. "Waking up early in the morning to go lift weights. … Everything we’ve done has been a grind. It has been tough.
"But I needed that drive and that push to get myself and this team to the next level."
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907.