Here's a look at why Darrun Hilliard (aka "The Bethlehem Steal") will be the conference POY. Before we get started, I want to send a Thank You to the editors for giving me this easy article to write because this should be automatic!
1. Best Player. Best Team.
The Big East Conference is loaded with talented teams. Villanova is clearly the best of them. The Villanova Wildcats are loaded with talented players. Darrun Hilliard has separated himself from the pack of talent throughout the conference season as, clearly, the best player on the Wildcats. There is no question that this unique combination of talent and success is one of the top criterion for the Big East Player of the Year award. Nobody has won the Conference Player of the Year award from a team ranked below fourth in the Big East Conference over the last 12 years.
Hilliard has also won a number of other accolades. He was the Big East's improved player last year (along with Daniel Ochefu), he's a unanimous pick as a First Team All-Big East player this year and a second team All-American as per Sporting News. He, along with Kris Dunn and LaDontae Henton are the lone unanimous first-team selections. When it comes to national honors, no other Big East player has been named an All American by any other sources (yet).
2. Stepping up when it matters
31 points on the road at Butler on eight three-pointers, including a game-winner. The game at Butler on Valentine's Day was Villanova's toughest test of second half of the Big East season. They won every other of their last 9 games by an average margin of 16 points. They managed to get out of Hinkle with a 3 point victory. If Chris Holtmann's vote is going to anyone but Hilliard, I may have to rethink my picks for Big East Coach of the Year!
In addition to the Butler game, we have to use the eye test to evaluate stepping up when it matters. While his numbers weren't huge, he often carried the 'Cats through early droughts. During the Wildcat's 12-game win streak, they have often started slow, save for the production of one Darrun Hilliard. It has been Hililard's efficient shooting, excellent ball possession and strong passing that have helped the Wildcats through their early-game struggles.
Despite playing on the most experienced and talented team in the conference (and when accounting for both, perhaps the entire country), Hilliard shone through as a senior leader. He always picks up his teammates, never causes trouble and hits the big shots when they're needed.
3. Statistically speaking, he's really good
As the Big East POY Award tends to focus on in-conference play, lets take a look at Hilliard's conference game stats and where he ranks amongst other Big East players:
15.4 PPG - 8th Place
44.5% FG - 13th Place
81.3% FT - 8th Place
41.4% 3PT - 9th Place
1.7 Stl/G - 5th Place
Let me remind you that this is all while averaging only 28.8 points per game. Nearly every other player in the running for POY Honors will be looking at playing over 35 minutes per game, nearly 25% more than Hilliard. This is obviously a product of 'Nova's incredible balance. This lack of playing time does two things in an ideal world: allows players to play with greater energy and intensity (which can lead to more statistic-earning opportunities), while limiting the tired time on the floor which could decrease efficiency. Speaking of which, Hilliard is eighth in overall player efficiency in the Big East according to ESPN ($). Another look at that table will show you the benefit of 'Nova's depth and balance: All eight of Villanova's regular rotation are in the top 37 in the conference in player efficiency. This is truly a testament to the coaching of Jay Wright during this campaign.
4. Examining the other contenders
If we're going to be honest, there are three players in contention for player of the year, Hilliard, Henton and Dunn. These are the three unanimous selections to the All-Conference team. They are all on teams who finished in the top four of the conference. These are prerequisites for the award, whether you like it or not.
Henton and Dunn have more points and more rebounds per game than Hilliard. Dunn has more assists and steals than Hilliard, but also turns the ball over more than three times as much as Hilliard (4.1 TO for KD and 1.2 for DH). Frankly, in pure potential, Dunn is probably the best player in the league. As far as pure stats, KD and Henton have an advantage, but they also play about 10 minutes more per game than Hilliard.
Head to head, Villanova won twice against Providence. Two weeks ago, during the second match up, at Villanova, Henton and Dunn combined for 16 total points on 6 of 18 shooting (33%), three steals and nine turnovers. Hilliard went off for 24 points, four rebounds, four steals, a block and only one turnover. This was a big game for both teams. Providence, who had just entered the top 25, had yet to lock up a tourney bid, but could have with a victory. Nova needed to stay on track for a #1 seed. The rightful player of the year led the way. That player was Darrun Hilliard.
Ultimately, this award has got to mean more than stats, otherwise we'd just pull up the stat sheet and mail the award out. This award needs to mean
AT THE BUZZER:
Hilliard was an unheralded recruit out of Liberty H.S. in Bethlehem, PA. He came from a school known more for football (Liberty's football stadium seats 14,000, Villanova's seats 12,500) than basketball (although CBS'S Billy Packer and basketball HOF coach Pete Carril are both fellow alums) and was considered a bit of a "project." Hilliard ended up needing to chip in at the point after the 'Cats found themselves with only one true point guard. Villanova struggled that year to a 13-19 record but steadily improved as Hilliard improved.
Coaches (who select the POY) should be able to see past Hilliard's pure numbers (which are obviously inferior to some other contenders) and limited minutes. He provided leadership when his team needed it most and was the undisputed leader for the undisputed best team in the conference.