If it were up to Fred Hoiberg, the Big 12 Player of the Year discussion starts and ends with his first four-year starter.
At his weekly news conference, leading into the Feb. 26 rematch against West Virginia (15-12, 7-7 Big 12), the head coach made it clear that he thought Melvin Ejim stood alone in the race for the league’s top individual award.
“When you look at his overall body of work,” Hoiberg said. “Leading the conference in scoring, second in rebounding, that 48-point game that he had is something people will look at as the highest scoring game ever in the Big 12 Conference.”
Right now, Ejim sits at the top of the Big 12 in scoring at 18.9 points per game, leading a pair of Mountaineers, Eron Harris (18.1) and Juwan Staten (18.0), making them the only three in the conference to average at least 18 points per game.
"The impact he’s had on winning," Hoiberg said. "From coming back after a couple weeks after the injury to his knee, impacting the win over Michigan, which is one of the top teams in the nation right now."
After Iowa State’s second loss to Kansas on Jan. 13, he said he needed to refocus his rebounding effort. The Big 12’s leading rebounder from a year ago wasn’t producing at the rate he needed to.
In the 10 games since then, Ejim has averaged 11.7 rebounds per game, far and away the best mark in the Big 12. And in the middle of those 10 games, Ejim put together a 48-point and 18-rebound game, which is the best in scoring performance in the Big 12’s history.
So how does Ejim feel about the praise he has received this season, which has been missing the last three seasons?
“I think I do definitely deserve it a little bit more and I’ve been getting it,” Ejim said. “But I’m not going to sit here and wish more people were talking about me. I just want to continue to do what I’m doing and if that means that no one’s talking about it at the end of the day, then I’m happy to get the job done.”
One job he — or the entire team — did not get done was on Feb. 10 at West Virginia, letting West Virginia shoot better than 50 percent from the field and knock down 13 triples, in a 102-77 loss.
“Obviously you’re going to have that date circled on your calendar whenever a team beats you like that on their home court,” said ISU forward Georges Niang. “It’s pretty fresh, I have a pretty good memory of what it felt like walking off that court.”
Toward the end of the 25-point loss, a series of plays ended with two flagrant fouls called and one ejection, but freshman Monte Morris — who was on the receiving end of the foul that got Eron Harris ejected — said it’s not about retaliation, it’s about winning the game.
“We’re just trying to go out there and get revenge and put on a good show [Feb. 26],” Morris said, “because we know we went down there and got embarrassed.”