CHARLESTON — Tennessee State's Christian Mekowulu may have been named the Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday, but Eastern Illinois senior Ray Crossland disagrees.
Crossland came to EIU last season from John A. Logan College and it didn't take long for EIU coach Jay Spoonhour to start putting Crossland on the opponent's best player. Crossland has kept the same role this season and has cut down on his fouls, allowing him to guard - or aggravate as some may see it - each team's best player game in and game out.
Because of that, the 6-6, 220-pound wing has earned the reputation as a defensive stopper and he thinks he's the best defensive player in the OVC.
Some may call that cocky, but it's that kind of confidence and edge that's helped Crossland become one of the best defenders in the conference.
"I really feel like I am the best. I really don't try and focus on any other players," Crossland said. "I try and focus on myself and what I need to do and I know defense is my strongest thing. I focus on that every night and I feel like I have the best defense in the OVC."
Spoonhour said he found out quickly just how good defensively Crossland is.
"He is a defensive guy. He's really good at it. His level of defense is at a really, really high level. He can guard some really good players and keep them out of doing what they want. He's got a talent for defending," Spoonhour said. "What he does, he just locks up good players. In terms of taking good players and taking them out of what they want to do, there isn't anyone better."
Each game, Crossland gets the toughest assignments. Whether it's guarding Murray State's Jonathan Stark or Southeast Missouri State's Denzel Mahoney or UT Martin's Matthew Butler. Crossland is always on the best offensive player, which is something he loves.
"I love a challenge. I like guarding the best players, it gives me a challenge. I am going to give it everything I've got and I hope they give me everything they've got," Crossland said. "Going into the game, coach wants me to guard the best player, so I just go in and do whatever I can. After the game, if I shut them down, I shut them down."
Some of the best players in the league return next season, but Crossland won't be back, which probably won't bother any of those players since he's spent the past two seasons all over them.
For Crossland, the last two seasons has been about doing whatever he's needed to in order to help the team win.
"It's been a fun experience coming from junior college. Last year to this year has been different playing a new role since we have a couple of new guys come in. Whatever I've got to do to help the team," Crossland said. "When I was little, that's what coaches always taught us, if we didn't play defense, we wouldn't be on the floor. If I have to go out and guard the best player every night, I don't mind doing it. I just want to win. Whatever I have to do to win, I will do it."
Defense isn't Crossland's only contribution. He averaged 11.4 points per game as a sophomore at John A. Logan and shot 41 percent from three-point range. Last season, Crossland averaged 10.5 points per game, which tied for third on the team in scoring. He finished the season with 44 assists and had two double-doubles.
This season Crossland is averaging 8.0 points per game and with different injuries, he's had to change the way he plays offensively. He's taken a few more shots lately and has become better at moving the ball.
"What I want is for him to stay out of the turnovers and that's been the talk for the last two years, take good shots and stay away from turnovers because that allows you to show off what you are really great at," Spoonhour said. "I've had to get him to maybe not look offensively as much and he doesn't much like it, but he's trying to do what we need to do to win and he's done a good job of it the last six games."
The change in his game offensively has helped Crossland play a key role offensively down the stretch. He's averaging 14.3 points per game over the last three games. In the win over UT Martin that clinched an OVC Tournament spot for Crossland, he scored 13 points and had a season-high eight rebounds. In Saturday's win over SIU Edwardsville, Crossland scored a season-high 18 points.
Crossland treats his game on the offense the same way he treats his defensive play. He will do whatever he needs to in order to help the team win.
"I just had to focus on what coach wanted me to do that was setup the offense more, take smarter shots and less turnovers," Crossland said. "I just try and come in and focus on the things coach wants me to do. It's a little change, but in junior college, the coach had me handling the ball a bit so I can handle it. I feel like I am starting to find my rhythm. I am just letting the game come to me."
Crossland is a psychology major and he will graduated in December. Crossland is hoping to play basketball overseas, but recently he's been talking to former EIU men's basketball player Dylan Chatman, who was a key defensive player for the Panthers. After Chatman finished his basketball career at EIU, he joined the football program and was a standout defensive back for the Panthers.
Crossland said there's a possibility he could try and join the football team after the basketball season is done.
"I played free safety in high school," Crossland said. "I talked to Dylan and he told me I should go and try out."