Jim Kwitchoff still has the texts in his phone. Early last September, the UB coaches put Javon McCrea through a one-man workout to evaluate his readiness for his junior season. They were not impressed.
Kwitchoff, the Bulls’ assistant, asked McCrea how he would have graded himself on a 1-to-10 scale. McCrea texted back “5”. Kwitchoff said it was a 2 or 3. He told McCrea he had crumbled physically and said it had been painful to watch.
Then Kwitchoff laid it on the line. He told McCrea he had to adopt a different mind-set if he intended to DOMINATE this season. Kwitchoff repeated the word several times, always in capital letters.
“There was no letup from our coaching staff,” Kwitchoff said, “just pounding home the message to Javon that if he wanted to be the dominant player in the Mid-American Conference, he had to be the dominant player from the moment he woke up in the morning.”
It hasn’t been easy. The transition from very good to great doesn’t happen overnight. But you can type it in capital letters. McCrea has became a dominant force in the MAC, a candidate to win the Player of the Year award that teammate Mitchell Watt won last year.
Last week, McCrea had 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks in an overtime loss at Kent State. Saturday, he scored 26 points in an 81-67 home win over Akron, handing the Zips their first MAC loss of the season.
Entering Tuesday night’s 72-69 home loss to Ohio, the 6-foot-7 McCrea was the only player among the top three in the MAC in scoring, rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage.
“This is the most confident I’ve been,” said McCrea, a native of Newark, near Rochester. “I know I can dominate. You never want to step off. But I know when to go hard. When I sense my teammates deferring to other people a little bit, that’s when I really get demanding and intense.”
By nature, he’s not a demanding personality. McCrea was a solid player in his first two seasons, but he was comfortable deferring on a team of upperclassmen. The Bulls graduated four seniors from a 20-11 team, so they needed McCrea to be more assertive.
“Javon watches a lot of LeBron James,” said head coach Reggie Witherspoon. “So he likes passing and doing other stuff. There’s a time for that. And there’s a time when you’ve to assert yourself and say, ‘No matter what the other team is doing, my team needs me to do this.’ ”
McCrea showed his full range of skills against Ohio. He had 19 points (on 9 of 17 shooting) and tied his season high with five assists, setting up teammates for easy hoops as the Bulls rallied from behind in the second half.
But Ohio, which won two games in the NCAA Tournament a year ago, proved more assertive in the end. After McCrea scored inside to give UB a 69-63 lead with 3:51 to play, the Bobcats closed on a 9-0 run.
McCrea missed two free throws during Ohio’s run. He was called for traveling. And during the Bulls’ final two possessions, he never touched the ball.
Ohio wasn’t going to let McCrea beat them, and a thin, turnover-prone UB squad didn’t have sufficient answers.
“McCrea’s game got a little bit layered to me this year,” said Ohio coach Jim Christian. “As the year went on, he started making jump shots and putting the ball on the floor. He became a harder guy to stop. He’s as good a post player as I’ve seen in my 10-11 years in this league.”
The kid has terrific hands and quick feet for a 250-pounder. McCrea has developed a nice touch on his jumper. He’s shooting 56 percent and has scored in double figures in every MAC game.
Back when he was a freshman, McCrea said he didn’t realize how good he could be. If he keeps improving at this rate, he might have a shot at the NBA. He says that’s his lifelong dream, and he believes he can play either forward position at the next level.
His immediate goal is to bring that elusive first MAC title to UB. The Bulls were supposed to be in transition this season, but if McCrea keeps improving, and the Bulls stop turning the ball over at such an alarming rate, they could make some noise in next week’s MAC Tournament.
“It’s the end of the year. I’m just tired of losing,” McCrea said. “Losing is a drag. It’s been a letdown to have a dropoff after a 20-win season last year.
“I really want to win a MAC championshp for this school and this program. They’ve been waiting too long for it.”