Big Cuz Emerging From Wall's Shadow
By Jason Brubaker
Remember Greg Oden?
Of course you do. He was one the most hyped big men to enter college in the last 10 years, billed as a superstar long before he ever even made his college decision. He graced magazine covers as a sophomore in high school, and was compared to everyone from Patrick Ewing to David Robinson to Tim Duncan. In his one and only year in college, he averaged 15.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game, and helped lead Ohio State to the national championship game before departing to the NBA, where he was the top overall pick.
Now, three years later, another dominant freshman big man has emerged. The only problem is, nobody seems to notice. You might think it's hard for a 6'11”, 260-pound big man to be overlooked, but that's exactly what's happened to Kentucky center DeMarcus Cousins for much of the season.
The hype around Lexington most of the season has centered on fellow freshman John Wall, and deservedly so. As the point guard, Wall has the ball in his hands nearly every play, and his combination of athleticism and poise has all but ensured that he will be the top pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. But is it possible that he's not even the most important player on his own team?
After all, Cousins, or “Big Cuz” to his teammates, has been a monster in the paint all year long, posting averages of 16 points and nine rebounds per game...all in only 21 minutes per game. Blessed with soft hands and brute strength, Cousins is an absolute load in the paint, and his presence under the basket opens up driving lanes for Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Liggins. He also has allowed forward Patrick Patterson to showcase more of his perimeter game by stepping away from the basket.
With all that he does, you may wonder why he's only logging 21 minutes per game. And therein lies the biggest question mark surrounding Cousins' future. Known to be an emotional player who can sometimes lose focus, Cousins has become the target of opponents recently, as they try to neutralize him by playing overly physical and trying to get him to lose his temper. As the season has worn on, this tactic has been employed more and more, as teams realize the best way to stop Cousins is to have him stop himself.
Against Vanderbilt last weekend, the Commodores did their best to frustrate Cousins, using forward Steve Tchiengang off the bench as an agitator for most of the game. While Big Cuz did have his moments, picking up a technical while mixing it up under the basket, he also pounded the 'Dores with 21 points and 10 boards. He also continually sparked life into an occasionally restless crowd, hitting the floor at least three times for loose balls and playing with an infectious energy that seemed to inspire his teammates. In short, he showed that even the one strategy designed to stop him might not be enough.
And the scary part for opponents? He is getting better. Of his 13 double-doubles this year, nine have come in the last 11 games. In SEC play, he's averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds, all while shooting 55 percent from the floor. He also has 15 blocks through the first seven conference games, showing he can be a factor on both sides of the floor.
Now admittedly, Cousins still is a work in progress. He needs to improve his conditioning, as he tends to look winded during games, which sometimes leads to his foul trouble. He has managed to control his emotions enough to still be a force on the floor, but veteran opponents will continue to bait him, hoping to take him out of his game. His defense has improved, but he still continues to find himself in foul trouble far too often. Only three times this year has he committed fewer than three fouls in a game, and should UK find themselves matched up with a frontcourt like Syracuse or Kansas at some point in March, they'll need him on the floor as much as possible.
But it's hard not to like Cousins at this point. For all of the talk about his emotions and temper, it's often not mentioned that his effort can't ever be questioned on the floor. He plays with a passion that has endeared him to the Big Blue nation, and he's quietly making a case for SEC Player of the Year. The grimace he wears on the floor masks a great smile off of it, as he has quickly become to “go-to” interview for reporters because of his sense of humor and brutal honesty. As impossible as it may have seemed only a few weeks ago, he has emerged from the John Wall shadow and is now creeping onto the radar of fans, who realize that this giant, dancing, sometimes-grumpy-but-often-goofy big man is a pretty good player in his own right.
He may not get the recognition of Wall, or even of other recent big men like Oden or Michael Beasley, but there's no doubt that Cousins could have just as big an impact as any of them. He looks to be a lock for the lottery now, and it would be a shock if he returns to Lexington for another season, especially if the Cats are able to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.
Maybe then, people will finally start to notice Big Cuz.