- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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I don't have a rooting interest when it comes to the University of Connecticut. I'm not from the state, didn't go to the school to make me root for it, don't have any particular ties to the Big East to make me root against it (full disclosure: I do love the pizza here).
That said, I am grateful as a basketball fan to live within a short drive of Hartford and Storrs. Obviously, when covering the sport, it's convenient to have the best team in the country that close to home, but I'd also happily shell out money for tickets to watch Maya Moore and Tina Charles even if it wasn't related to work. Both are marvels on the court who don't do anything off the court that makes you regret admiring that talent.
Watching Moore and Charles is fun, plain and simple.
Like Peyton Manning, LeBron James or anyone who has the talent to be the best there ever was at what they do, Moore seems to have been born equal parts polished and lethally competitive. And aside from owning the low post, there's an impish free-spiritedness to the way Charles moves when she isn't on the court that belies her size.
At the risk of feeding the stereotype that great female athletes must also be "nice," both really seem as likeable as two people can from a relative distance.
But something dawned on me while watching Nebraska beat Texas A&M on Saturday.
I'd vote for Nebraska's Kelsey Griffin as player of the year if ballots were due today.
Much of that, I guess, comes down to how anyone defines the award. If it's for the most talented player in the country, it's Moore (after Nebraska crushed Vermont in Burlington, Catamounts coach Sharon Dawley said Griffin was one of the best players she had ever seen; she also said Moore was probably the only player she had seen in person this season who was better). If it's for the player who has made the biggest impact on the best team this season, and one of the best teams ever, it's Charles.
But, at least to me, the definition isn't that easily discernible.
Talent counts, team success counts (if only as a reflection of individual value) and stats count. But the final product needs to be left to simmer on the stove until it reduces to a finished product in which the original ingredients are no longer individually apparent.
Griffin is competitive in every individual regard. She's not Moore, and she won't hear her name called before Charles (or likely several other players) in the WNBA draft, but she's no overachiever getting by on grit. She's good; she's really good. She has remarkable body control with the ball in her hands, turning potential hard contact into glancing blows like the kind of running back they haven't had in Lincoln for a few years now. She finishes in traffic, almost always freeing her upper body to get a shot off cleanly.
When you're the first, second and sometimes third priority of opposing defenses, you aren't able to shoot better than 60 percent (as a perhaps generously listed 6-foot-2 forward) without a knack for creating space where less-talented players would find none. She shows the same agility and the same quick hands when she jumps passing lanes on defense.
And there are further numbers to consider. Griffin plays essentially the same number of minutes per game as Moore and Charles and has both of them beat in scoring and rebounding. She trails Moore in 3-point shooting, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, steals and blocks, and obviously trails Charles in blocks. But Griffin can fill out a stat sheet in her own right. And if Connecticut has played a tougher schedule, it isn't by an order of magnitude.
There's also something unquantifiable, just as there is for Moore and Charles.
Matt Coatney, the terrific play-by-play voice of the Huskers, tells a great story about Griffin's competitiveness. Stuck in an airport on a road trip, the team hears a gate change announcement for their flight. Coatney moves out in front of the slowly ambling pack as it shifts its belongings, only to hear a rapid clip-clop behind him. What quickly evolves is a pseudo-footrace between Coatney and Griffin that he wins thanks only to his comfortable head start. Nobody says anything about it at the time, but when chance brings it up in conversation sometime later, her eyes flash.
Oh yes, she still remembers, and she's not happy about coming in second.
Add up all the parts -- subjective and objective, analytical and anecdotal -- and I can't escape thinking that while Geno Auriemma might be right that the two best players in the country play for Connecticut, the player of the year so far is a Cornhusker.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.