Citadel Zane Najdawi

The Citadel's Zane Najdawi is averaging 20.3 points in SoCon games this season, second in the league. Provided/Citadel Athletics

The old joke says that the only man capable of holding Michael Jordan under 20 points a game was his coach at North Carolina, Dean Smith.

Citadel basketball coach Duggar Baucom might or might not laugh if told the same joke about him and his 6-7 junior, Zane Najdawi.

After a slow start to this season — for which Baucom is willing to take the blame — Najdawi has emerged as a Southern Conference player of the year candidate.

As The Citadel faces Mercer on Friday in the Bulldogs' final home game of the season, it's difficult to find anyone who has played better than the "Zane Train" in SoCon games.

"I'm certainly partial, but I don't think anybody has," said Baucom, who is eternally grateful that his predecessor, Chuck Driesell, recruited Najdawi to The Citadel.

"I don't know that anybody has carried their team as much as Zane has for us. He's been such a huge factor in the games we've won. And if we had gotten him more help in some other games, we might have won a few more."

Numbers game

In SoCon games this season, Najdawi ranks No. 2 in the league in scoring (20.3 points), No. 1 in field-goal percentage (57.2), No. 2 in blocks (33), No. 4 in 3-point percentage (46.9 percent) and No. 11 in rebounds (6 per game).

The combination of field-goal percentage, usually the province of post players, and 3-point percentage, where sharp-shooting guards excel, is particularly telling.

Najdawi is the only player in the league to rank in the top nine in both categories in SoCon play.

Not bad for a guy who estimates he took all of 11 3-point shots during his high school career at Cosby High School in Midlothian, Va.

"We shoot a lot of 3-pointers and work with all our guys," Baucom said. "But all credit goes to Zane. He's done it on his own, in the off-season, just repetition after repetition."

Najdawi's fast friendship with teammate Matt Frierson, the Bulldogs' top 3-point shooter, has helped. The pair, both planning on Air Force careers after The Citadel, have spent countless hours in the gym together.

"We're best friends, so he's really helped me a lot," Najdawi said. "He's a quiet guy, but around me you see a different side to him. He's really funny, a dry humor you might not expect."

Baucom was still head coach at VMI when Najdawi was a senior at Cosby High, where he was a three-time conference of the year.

But Baucom confesses that he wasn't sure Najdawi could shoot well enough to play in his 3-point happy system, and Driesell signed Zane for The Citadel.

When Baucom replaced Driesell, one of his first stops was the Najdawi living room to re-recruit Zane.

"We didn't need to see him work out," Baucom said. "We knew he could play."

Najdawi's father, Chudri, is a native of Jordan who works for the Dept. of Defense, helping run commissaries at American military bases around the world. Chudri met his future wife, Cynthia, in Utah, where Zane was born, and the family has lived in Italy, Portugal, Germany, Kentucky and Virginia.

Zane's younger brother, Caden, is a 6-8 freshman at Division II Millersville (Pa.) University, where he's averaging 9.8 points and 5.7 rebounds.

Slow start

Najdawi's season did not get off to a great start, as he averaged just 8.7 points in 10 pre-conference games, including a zero at North Carolina A&T.

"I'll take some responsibility for that," Baucom said. "We were trying to play a little differently, and it was a bad calculation on my part. We were playing him on the perimeter more, more of an open-post offense.

"But once we started conference play, we needed that post presence. When we made it a priority to get it inside to him, he just took off."

Najdawi has led the Bulldogs in scoring in 11 of 16 SoCon games, including a career-best 37 in a 110-101 win over Chattanooga on Jan. 13.

He hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 34 seconds left in Monday's 84-82 upset of league-leader ETSU, scrambling to his feet after being thrown to the floor during the play.

The Bulldogs (10-18, 5-11) have wins over the first, third, fourth and fifth-place teams in the SoCon, but were swept by two of the bottom three teams, Samford and VMI.

"That's been confusing and frustrating at times," Najdawi said. "We can beat the No. 1 seed, but not the last seed. We might play to the level of our competition, I don't know. But it's good to know we can compete with the top teams in our conference."

As for SoCon player of the year, Wofford shooting star Fletcher Magee and ETSU stat-stuffer Desonta Bradford might be the favorites.

Magee has led Wofford to wins over ACC foes Georgia Tech and North Carolina, and scored 45 points at Chattanooga. Bradford has averaged 15.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists while leading ETSU to the cusp of the regular-season title.

But voters should not forget the Zane Train.

"He's played just fabulous, and in the conference season, his numbers rank with anybody," Baucom said. "He's been a workhorse for us."

The all-SoCon teams and player of the year will be announced Feb. 28.

Mercer at The Citadel

WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday

WHERE: McAlister Field House

RECORDS: Mercer 16-13, 9-7; The Citadel 10-18, 5-11

TV: ESPN3. RADIO: 94.7-FM, 910-AM

NOTES: The Citadel snapped a four-game skid with an 84-82 upset of SoCon-leader ETSU on Monday, behind 24 points from 6-7 junior Zane Najdawi ... 5-5 junior Frankie Johnson had 12 points, seven assists and seven rebounds in that game ... The Bulldogs won at Mercer by 76-74 on Jan. 27 behind 14 points from 6-3 junior Matt Frierson ... Mercer has won six straight since snapping a 4-game skid ... Demetre Rivers, a 6-8 senior from Stratford High School, is averaging 10.9 points and shooting 35.9 percent from 3-point range for the Bears.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC