The way you look at Steve McElvene depends if you meet him going to class or going to the basket.
At 6-foot-11, he stands out on the University of Dayton campus where he’s thought to be the tallest of the school’s 11,271 students.
“He’s easily the biggest person on campus,” said Dayton Flyers teammates Bobby Wehrli, who is 6-foot-6. “He stands high above everybody else at school.”
McElvene agreed he is the tallest, but he said his towering presence hides what he thinks is a bigger truth:
“I think once people get to know me, they see I’m a pretty nice guy. That I’m pretty cool, guy they like to be around.”
On the court it’s different.
Meet him there and the exchange is likely to be a little more bruising. Although it’s just his first season of college basketball, the redshirt freshman became one of the more imposing figures in the Atlantic 10 Conference.
Guys who go up against him are likely to have one of three things happen to them. Maybe all three.
He’ll block your shot, dunk on you or foul you.
He does each with emphasis and two at a record pace.
Although his playing time went down as the year progressed, some of it by design, some because of his persistent foul trouble, McElvene still set the single-season record at UD for blocked shots with 55. He also tied the school record for blocks in a game with six against Saint Louis.
He became such a favorite in the Red Scare student section at UD Arena that he was featured on an oft- waved sign that proclaimed “Big Steve Says No!”
Although he led the A-10 in blocked shots for much of the season, his reduced minutes caused him to finish fourth in the league in blocks.
His inside presence also is seen in his rim-jarring dunks, his offensive rebounding and his team-best 61.5 percent field-goal shooting.
With that in mind, there are those like Bucky Bockhorn, UD Hall of Fame player and current broadcaster, who think McElvene will be the X factor in today’s NCAA Tournament opener against Syracuse here at the Scottrade Center.
The Orange is famed for its 2-3 zone defense, but Bockhorn thinks if the Flyers’ Dyshawn Pierre can get the ball up around the free-throw line he can initiate a high-low game with McElvene that could be problematic for Syracuse.
But then there’s that flip side: McElvene’s tendency to foul and end up on the bench.
Although he’s seventh in minutes, he leads the team in personal fouls with 86. To get a better understanding, he fouls on the average of once every 6.4 minutes on the court. Point guard Scoochie Smith fouls once every 16.5 minutes.
Part of it is the nature of the position and part, McElvene admitted Thursday, is “my rough style of play.”
He shook his head when asked if he thought he drew special scrutiny from the referees:
“I do get frustrated and it’s something I get mad about some times, but hey, I did the fouling, not the refs.”
His tendency to foul has, at times, frustrated everybody from coach Archie Miller to his teammates.
“Arch will come at me pretty hard sometimes,” he said. “He just asks why. Why did I leave the ground? Why did I jump? Why?
“My teammates probably come at me stronger. They want me to play smarter and stay in the game and help them out.”
After the recent A-10 tournament in Brooklyn, McElvene said he was even counseled by Miller’s dad, John, the fabled prep coach from Pennsylvania:
“Mr. Miller gave me a few pointers. He just told me if I’m guarding a perimeter player and they try a jump fake, I should just stay on the ground, use my hands and move my feet quicker.”
Before the Flyers practiced Thursday, Archie talked about his big man:
“He just played his first year of college basketball. I think it’s harder for big kids early in their careers to figure out how the college game works for them, more so than a guard.
“Learning the game, being smarter how people go after him and the fouling and some things like that, that’s just immaturity in terms of understanding the game. As he gets older, he’s going to continue to gain knowledge that a big man needs to have.”
Miller said people are seeing “just the tip” of the iceberg with McElvene. He praised his physical tools, his great hands and especially his “unbelievable appetite to work.”
That was seen last season when McElvene came from New Haven, Ind., as a partial academic qualifier and the NCAA permitted him to practice but not play as he built an academic foundation.
While he beefed up with the books, he had to do just the opposite with his body.
He said he weighed 315 when he got to campus and would get winded easily in drills.
“Steve started from, I don’t want to say rock bottom, but he started at one level at 300 pounds,” Miller said. “Today he’s 250.”
“Actually 245,” said McElvene.
Better fitness has enabled him to capitalize on his natural gifts.
After being the smallest of his mother’s three children at birth at 6 pounds, 7 ounces, he said he was average height until he hit a growth spurt in eighth grade. By ninth grade he said he was 6-foot-9, “but chubby … It was hard for me to get off the ground.”
He still made a name for himself as a shot blocker and some of his varsity games as New Haven High School were legendary.
Playing against South Bend Adams in a tournament, he blocked nine shots.
When Bryson Scott, a Northrup High guard who later went to Purdue and now is at Purdue-Fort Wayne, tried to score on him, McElvene slapped the shot into the middle of the school band.
This season he’s had a couple of classic blocks against a pair of A-10 all-conference big men, Saint Joseph’s Isaiah Miles and VCU’s Mo Alie Cox.
Both tried to dunk on him and both he stuffed.
After the St. Joe’s game, Miles sought out McElvene.
“He asked what grade I was in,” McElvene said. “I told him I was a freshman and he told me to just keep playing hard.”
Since they were no longer battling on the court, this was more like a meeting on campus.
And Isaiah Miles seemed to find Big Steve to be “pretty cool.”
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