BOWLING GREEN, Ky. — Senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez has been named the 2008-09 Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year while his backcourt mate, junior guard AJ Slaughter received Second-Team All-Conference honors, the conference office announced Tuesday morning following a vote of the league's 13 head coaches and one media representative from each school.
Mendez-Valdez, who also earned a spot on the five-member All-Conference First-Team, becomes the fifth Sun Belt Player of the Year for Western Kentucky University in the past nine seasons joining the likes of Courtney Lee (2007-08), Anthony Winchester (2005-06), Mike Wells (2003-04), and Chris Marcus (2000-01). Overall, WKU has had seven Players of the Year dating back to its entrance into the league in 1982 with Chris Robinson notching the award in 1994-95 and Tellis Frank as the first Hilltopper honored in 1986-87.
Along with Slaughter's selection, WKU now has 34 All-Conference honorees including at least one in 24 of its 27 years of Sun Belt affiliation. Also, Mendez-Valdez marks the ninth-straight year the Toppers have had a First-Team selection.
After three seasons in a support role, his senior season was the time for Mendez-Valdez to step into the spotlight. Averaging 14.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, the San Antonio, Texas native ranks in the top 10 in the conference in six major statistical categories including leading the league in three-pointers made per game at 2.89.
He has 19 double-digit scoring games including eight of 20 points or more, leaving him just six points shy of becoming the 42nd player in WKU history to reach 1,000 career points. And his success has not just come at the friendly confines of Diddle Arena, as 12 of his 10-plus point performances have come on the road including eight of his top 10. He poured in a career-best 25 points on 7-of-9 from the three-point line against Florida State at the MetrosPCS Orange Bowl Classic on December 28.
In addition to scoring, Mendez-Valdez has been a defensive presence and a playmaker. He has led the Toppers in steals 14 times and in assists on 12 occasions. With 325 career assists, Mendez-Valdez ranks sixth all-time at WKU and he is fifth all-time in career three-pointers with 180. He needs just six points and 10 steals to become just the fourth player in the illustrious 90-year history of WKU basketball to have 1,000 points, 300 assists, and 125 steals in a career.
As a career-highlight, Mendez-Valdez scored 18 points, dished out 12 assists, and grabbed 10 rebounds in a January 1 win over Troy at Diddle Arena, marking the first ever known triple double in school history. For his efforts, he was named the Sun Belt Player of the Week on January 5.
Slaughter has been a consistent leader for the Hilltoppers in 2008-09, pacing the team and ranking seventh in the Sun Belt in scoring at 15.7 ppg. After missing the first two games of the season, the Shelbyville, Ky. native has scored in double figures in 25 of 27 games including a current career-best streak of 13 consecutive contests.
On November 30, in WKU's landmark upset of #3 Louisville 68-54 in Nashville, Tenn., Slaughter scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed nine rebounds. He followed that up two days later with 20 points in a home win over Georgia 67-63 in front of a national television audience on ESPNU. For his efforts, he became the first Hilltopper other than Courtney Lee to win Sun Belt Player of the Week honors since 2006.
Slaughter tied Mendez-Valdez for most 20-point games with eight while leading the team in assists 13 times and in steals on 14 occasions. Ranking in the Sun Belt in seven major statistical categories, Slaughter buoyed the Toppers to just the program's eighth undefeated home season in 46 years at E.A. Diddle Arena as well as a conference championship, a guaranteed national postseason bid, and a top-seed in the 2009 SBC Tournament.
FIU's Freddy Asprilla was named the Freshman of the Year while Richard Delk of Troy took home Newcomer of the Year honors. Troy's Don Maestri was voted as the Coach of the Year and John Fowler of UALR received the award for Defensive Player of the Year.
South Alabama and Troy each had three selections among the 15 All-Conference honorees while 10 schools were represented with at least one player on the First, Second, or Third Team.
WKU will open play in the 2009 Sun Belt Tournament as the number one seed on Sunday, March 8 in Hot Springs, Ark. as the Toppers face the winner of Wednesday night's contest between FIU and Louisiana-Lafayette. Game time for Sunday's quarterfinal game is 12:30 PM CT.
2008-09 Sun Belt Conference
Orlando Mendez-Valdez, WKU
Shane Edwards, UALR
Nate Rohnert, Denver
Desmond Yates, Middle Tennessee
Brandon Hazzard, Troy
AJ Slaughter, WKU
Paul Graham III, Florida Atlantic
Domonic Tilford, South Alabama
Brandon Davis, South Alabama
Richard Delk, Troy
Freddy Asprilla, FIU
Kyndall Dykes, New Orleans
Eric Tramiel, North Texas
DeAndre Coleman, South Alabama
Michael Vogler, Troy
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Orlando Mendez-Valdez, WKU
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Freddy Asprilla, FIU
NEWCOMER OF THE YEAR: Richard Delk, Troy
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: John Fowler, UALR
COACH OF THE YEAR: Don Maestri, Troy