Perhaps it's time Austin Ainge got credit for his role in getting the Cougars on top of the Mountain West Conference heading down the final stretch.

Ainge wasn't supposed to handle all the pressure he'd face when Rashaun Broadus got suspended.

Well, he certainly has.

He's a senior. He leads; people follow. His team is on top.

Since Broadus left the team, the Cougars have lost two games, both on the road, at UNLV and Colorado State. It's a run nobody else in the league can match. And only for a portion of one of those games, the one against the Rebels, did Ainge and the rest of the Cougars look a little mystified.

Once in 13. I'll take those numbers.

Heading into tonight's game at TCU, Ainge leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio — a sign of a point guard handling his duties just fine. Ainge has played more games than any other guard in the MWC in this category. Ainge has 99 assists (4.1 per game) and 49 turnovers (2.0 per game) for a 2.02 ratio.

I've watched this Ainge model for five years. He's had his ups and downs. He's been injured. He's taken a seat on the bench. He's shared starting duties. Then he's gone back to the bench before receiving the call to be the team's quarterback as a senior. He's gone to arenas all over the country and taken all kinds of guff for being his father's son. Sometimes, it's been ugly. Most of the time, it has been personal.

Few BYU basketball players have taken the abuse Ainge has found routine.

Still, Ainge puts on an unflappable attitude. He has court savvy beyond his years. He is an outspoken leader on and off the court. When he talks, he's got clout behind what he says, and those on his squad listen.

The kid has come a long way. The Cougars are 18-6 overall, 8-2 in the MWC. While holding on to first place in the league, BYU has a five-game win streak. Ainge is in the center of it all.

Without carbon dating myself, I remember writing the news story of his father, Danny, committing to BYU out of North Eugene High School in Oregon. I still have the newspaper clipping I wrote for the Eugene Register Guard as a freelance writer a few years later, a feature on Toronto Blue Jay Danny Ainge and his wife, Michelle Toolson, including a photo showing Michelle holding their firstborn, Austin.

That's why it's been kind of strange covering Austin Ainge the past few seasons. I think of that scrunched-up, alien-looking face in that receiving blanket in his mother's arms. Then I see him run BYU's basketball team for head coach Dave Rose. Has it been that long?

This Ainge doesn't get enough credit. In fact, imagine how hard it is to be the oldest son of Danny Ainge, wear a uniform and get in front of crowds and play from Bantam to junior high, then high school and college.

Austin Ainge has handled it with class. Like his dad, he is one of the best interviews on BYU's team. He doesn't cheat a reporter when it comes to quotes. It's like talking to one of the coaches.

Over this season, Ainge has patiently answered questions about this BYU team, emphasizing the Cougars would be a title contender, even when it didn't appear they'd finish where they'd been picked, second in the preseason poll.

Like his father, he operates with confidence drawn from a bottomless well. He is not easily shaken. And this rubs off on his teammates.

Has he delivered big play after big play in his career? No, not like his dad. But he's had his share, and his job is to set up others, not be the pack mule.

It was Ainge who insisted all year long that BYU's backcourt could handle itself. And when Broadus left, he pointed out the Cougar guards were capable and had shown it — against Michigan State and, for at least half of the game, at top-ranked UCLA.

"We've faced talented guards all year, and except for that breakdown at UNLV, I think we've done pretty well," he said.

It was Ainge who carefully addressed criticism the Cougars couldn't win road games after getting nipped by a whisker at Boise State and Lamar. After the Cougars snapped New Mexico's win streak at The Pit, he quipped, "Maybe we don't have to read about that any more."

Then came wins at Utah and Wyoming.

And he gently reminded reporters that losing to UCLA and Michigan State wasn't a shame. They weren't chopped liver.

Twice in the Cougars' last 11 wins, Ainge has had games with eight assists.

When Broadus got the boot, Ainge was the first to praise the man he'd had to share playing time with, saying the senior from Hawaii would be sorely missed. Then, he spent time building up Dixie State transfer Ben Murdock, who just finished posting back-to-back games with four assists, and pushed the Cougars to play their best games of the season.

Danny Ainge should have nothing but pride for this son operating on the shirttails of his basketball legacy.

Yes, he still throws away the ball on some goofy pass once in a while, but we've seen him push the ball up the court and deliver great set-up shots his entire career. He's had many clutch performances and delivered big shots, whether on pull-up jumpers, drives or long bombs.

He is what he is, and that isn't too shabby.

I can finally get the infant's face out of my mind and recognize the man.

Ainge is a very good basketball player.

And the credit is long overdue.

E-mail: [email protected]