By Matt Nestor
As uncertain as the Conference Player of the Year race was last season, everyone was just as certain to where their focus would be coming into this season.
Most expected Auburn’s Fred Van Vleet to follow his big brother, the graduated J.D. Danforth, as the Conference Player of the Year.
On play alone, Van Vleet was the obvious choice. But what many expected entering the season was for the junior to step into the leadership role his brother left behind, no easy task for a young player.
“Last year, I had to defer to my brother J.D.,” Van Vleet said. “He was a senior and our leading scorer. But this year, I think I have a bigger burden to help carry our team.”
Van Vleet had quite the opening salvo in stating his case to be this year’s top player. In their conference-opener, against co-favorite Boylan, the point guard scored a career-high 37 points.
In addition to his own points, he assisted on nearly every other basket he didn’t score in the second half, meaning he accounted for almost every point the Knights scored.
Auburn coach Bryan Ott said that last year, his then-sophomore point guard did everything that was asked of him. With Danforth established as the go-to player, he played point guard and took a back seat to the seniors.
“What he did for us last year is run the team,” Ott said. “Truly, it was J.D.’s team last year. He was the vocal leader on the floor. As was Chris Kimbrough, a senior who was not a flashy player, but played his role for us.”
According to Ott, who would step into the leadership role is a big question for this season. Senior Anthony Strickland, who was certainly a leader as a junior, is still around. But with Danforth gone, Van Vleet is taking control of the team.
“Fred steps in and, yeah, he’s doing what we want a point guard to do,” Ott said. “He’s becoming a coach on the floor.”
More than just the points, however, is how involved his teammates are in the game. Van Vleet is among the leaders in the conference in assists.
Strickland scored 42 points in their first two conference games, to go with 33 from LaMark Foote. Beyond that, he is directing traffic on defense and making sure everyone is where they need to be when the Knights have the ball.
“If we can have that out of him every night, then that will speak volumes about how far he’s come,” Ott said. “And it will speak volumes about how far we might be able to go.”
From the Dec. 8-14, 2010 issue