NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Kevin Stallings prefaced a thought Wednesday by saying Mark Fox might get mad at him for what he was about to say. There's a decent chance he'll be right.
Stallings, the Vanderbilt head coach, had just volunteered that his SEC player of the year vote went to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Fox's star player at Georgia. And Stallings wanted to accentuate just how highly he felt about Caldwell-Pope.
"Mark might get mad at me for saying this - and Mark and I have a good relationship - he just looks like a pro to me," Stallings said.
Fox and Stallings may indeed be simpatico, and remain such once Fox sees that quote. But it's not likely Fox will urge Caldwell-Pope to ring up Stallings - or any other SEC coach - as he decides whether to forego his junior and senior seasons for the draft.
Stallings had a lot to say about why he felt Caldwell-Pope was easily the best player in the conference.
"He can jump up and shoot jump-shots off the dribble. He can get to the basket. He shoots it deep. He guards you. There's nothing that kid's not good at on a basketball court, in my opinion," Stallings said. "There are some really great scorers in this league, and some really great rebounders, and some really great defenders. He's one of the few guys in this league who is good at everything that goes on in a basketball court, in my opinion."
Caldwell-Pope won SEC player of the year despite not playing for one of the conference's best teams: Georgia, at 9-9 in the SEC, is the No. 8 seed in the 14-team tournament. But Stallings, now in his 14th year at Vanderilt, had no hesitation.
"Honestly that was an easy vote for me," Stalling said. "I think he's the best player in the league. And he's great on offense. He's great on defense. He's a very, very, very underrated defender in my opinion. I don't know if he made the all-defense team or not but I voted for him for that too. I feel strongly he should have been on it if he wasn't."
Stallings said his POY vote would have been a bit harder if Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel had stayed healthy. Noel tore his ACL last month.
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin also said he voted for Caldwell-Pope. While acknowledging that a team's performance and the age of a player is often important, Martin said he went with KCP because of how valuable he was to his team.
"What he brings to the team. Also a talent level. He was my pick for those reasons, and I thought he did a good job with it even though his team didn't finish in the top two, three, four," Martin said. "I thought what he brought at the table as a player and how he made his other guys around him better, that's why I voted for him."
Florida head coach Billy Donovan, speaking on Monday prior to the awards being announced, said Caldwell-Pope was "one of the better players not only in our league but in the country, and he’s continued to get better and better."
Donovan also said Caldwell-Pope was overlooked last year because of the other standout freshmen, namely Florida's Brad Beal and Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist. Those three all left for the NBA draft and were among the first four players taken.
"So he probably flew under the radar and probably didn’t get enough credit for the type of player he is. But I don’t think there’s any question he’s a guy who should get strong consideration for player of the year in this league," Donovan said. “I think maybe the most underrated part of his game that no one talks about is he’s got really, really tremendous speed,” Donovan said. “I mean, he’s got great explosiveness to his game. He’s a hard guy to handle and we’ve had to do it with a lot of people. I don’t know if you can just play him with one guy.”