Since we’ve reached the halfway point of the season, I wanted to break down the contenders for Big Ten Player of the Year. I think it’s fair to say this list has some significant changes compared to what I would have put together prior to the season.
1. Draymond Green, Michigan State
Justified or not, these types of awards typically go to the best player on the best team, but that isn’t why I have Green ranked this high despite the fact the Spartans are playing the best basketball of anyone in the league.
Quite simply, Green does everything for this team.
In terms of raw numbers, he leads them in points (15.9 ppg), rebounds (9.8 rpg), and blocks (1.2 bpg) and is second in assists (3.4 apg) and steals (1.5 spg). He’s the only player in the league to be in that Top 15 in each of those categories and one of just three players to rank that high in four of them.
Green has scored in double figures in 16 of MSU’s 17 games with eight double-doubles, and he’s narrowly missed three others. He ranks among the nation’s leaders in defensive rebounding percentage and has a tremendous assist rate, particularly when you consider he doesn’t play guard. Throw in the fact that he also attacks the offensive glass, draws a lot of fouls, and is an above average defender.
Perhaps most importantly, he is the unquestioned leader of the Michigan State team and has helped propel one of last season’s most disappointing teams to a Top 10 ranking, even after losing their first two games.
Image credit: Al Goldis – AP via The Only Colors
2. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Sullinger’s absence, either via injury or foul trouble, played a key role in Ohio State’s first two losses this season against Kansas and Indiana. Brandon Paul can take credit for the third. But ultimately, that shows what a game-changer Sullinger is and how vital he is to OSU’s success. The 17.4 points and 9.3 boards per game speak to that too I suppose.
I could rattle off stats for quite a while about just how impressive Sullinger is, but here are just a few. His 126.9 offensive rating is among the best in the country. His 31.0 defensive rebounding percentage means he grabs nearly one out of every three of their opponents’ missed shots, which has helped the Buckeyes become the most efficient defensive team. Sullinger makes better than 60 percent of his field goal attempts, is a monster on the offensive glass, and draws a ton of fouls. He has eight double-doubles in 16 games, and the only game where he hasn’t scored at least 11 points is the one he left with a foot injury.
Interestingly, Sullinger’s free throw rate has fallen from last season, and he’s attempted just six free throws in the last three games. That said, with the team struggling from beyond the arc, they would be well served to pound the ball inside to him even more. Without a doubt, he is the top low-post player in college basketball and the top player on one of the nation’s elite teams.
3. Cody Zeller, Indiana
For a player who came in with extremely high expectations from a fan base starving for success, it’s hard to believe that Zeller has already blown those out of the water. You can add to that what his signing meant for the program and its future, but let’s focus on his play on the court.
Zeller is in the Top 11 in the Big Ten in points (14.2 ppg), rebounds (6.4 rpg), steals (1.7 spg), and blocks (1.5 bpg). He’s shooting over 66 percent from the field, and as Luke Winn pointed out, he rarely gets into foul trouble. His offensive rating is in the nation’s Top 25, and he quite simply has changed the way the Hoosiers play due to his ability to score in the post, draw fouls, rebound, and run the floor.
The scary part is that he’s only going to get better once he adds more bulk and gets used to the physical nature of conference play. And while you can’t give him all the credit, the reality is that the Hoosiers are the most surprising team in the country. They returned virtually everyone from a team that went 12-20, and the only addition to play substantial minutes is Zeller. Take from that what you will.
4. Tim Frazier, Penn State
Frazier will never actually win this award, because his team is barely over .500 at this point. But I’m not sure they would have won more than a game or two without him.
Like Zeller, he ranks among the Big Ten leaders in points (17.4 ppg), rebounds (5.4 rpg), assists (6.8 apg), and steals (2.2 spg), all of which are tops on the team. He has played just under 90 percent of the team’s minutes this season, ranks second in the nation in assist rate at 47.8, and draws 7.0 fouls per 40 minutes, which he has parlayed into 125 free throw attempts already. In short, he is Penn State’s team, and even though their opponents knows that coming in, he continues to produce.
The team’s reliance on him ultimately leads to the two knocks against him, a high number of turnovers and a relatively poor shooting percentage. Even so, I would argue that no player in the league means more to his team.
5. Trey Burke, Michigan
Coming into the season, my biggest question about the Wolverines was how they could (or if they could) replace Darius Morris at the point. Burke has provided a resounding answer to that question, and if not for Zeller, he would be a lock for Freshman of the Year.
After logging just 18 minutes in the opener, Burke has played at least 30 minutes in every game since, reaching double figures in 14 of 15 games including the last ten. He leads the team with 5.0 assists per game, and his 29.8 assist rate ranks just outside the Top 100 nationally and is among the five best in the league. His turnover rate and decision-making bely his youth, and ultimately his ability to run the offense so effectively has allowed the Wolverines to pick up where they left off last season.
As with Zeller, the fact that Burke is only going to get better is a frightening proposition for Big Ten coaches, and he has the talent to be a contender for this award over the next few years as well.
6. Robbie Hummel, Purdue
It’s hard not to feel good for Hummel after suffering not one, but two, devastating knee injuries. He’s leading the Boilers in scoring (16.2 ppg), rebounding (6.2 rpg), and blocks (1.2 bpg) while hitting over 38 percent from three-point range. Hummel has been remarkably consistent, scoring at least 10 points in all but one game and grabbing at least five boards in 14 of 17 contests.
With JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore gone, Hummel has been counted on as the primary scorer for the first time in his career, as evidenced by the fact he’s taken 109 more shots than anyone else on the team. Given how much he handles the ball, his paltry 7.2 turnover rate is that much more impressive.
While Hummel isn’t a flashy player by any means, he’s as steady as they come and has given a relatively young Purdue team a rock to build around. And a year after losing two of the best players in school history, the Boilers are in good position to get a tournament bid, which is a testament to his leadership and overall ability.
7. Christian Watford, Indiana
While Watford played hero in one of the top moments (ok, the top moment) of the season so far with his buzzer-beater to knock off then top-ranked Kentucky, focusing only on that play would be a disservice to Watford’s overall productivity this season. You could argue that he’s one of the most improved players in the conference as well despite the fact that he led the Hoosiers in scoring last season.
Tom Crean cites a change in Watford’s mindset following Spring Break last season, but the transformation was most evident to me starting with the second half of the N.C. State game. He scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds after halftime to lead the Hoosiers to a key road win. In the nine games since, he has eight double-digit scoring games, four 20-point performances, and a pair of double-doubles.
The addition of Zeller has allowed Watford to play more on the perimeter where he’s hitting 52.9 percent from beyond the arc, but he continues to draw fouls and get to the line at a relatively high rate. He and Zeller are still learning how best to play with one another, but Watford is playing like an All-Conference performer of late and deserves some credit for IU’s overall success – as well as its signature moment.
8. Keith Appling, Michigan State
Just one month ago I would have been committed for putting Appling on this list, but his play over the last eight games has been a huge factor in Michigan State’s improvement. After being used primarily as a defensive stopper as a freshman, he was asked to take on an expanded role at the point this season. Through two games, he had zero assists, although he did show flashes with a 22-point outburst against Duke.
Over the last eight games though, he has 43 assists compared to just 16 turnovers. Appling’s scoring has ramped up as well with 17.8 points per game over the last fives contests. His best game came against Indiana where he 25 points, seven assists, and six rebounds while being incredibly dispruptive on defense and holding Jordan Hulls to just four points on 2-of-10 shooting with four turnovers. In Sparty’s road win over Wisconsin, he was the MSU offense at certain points in the second half.
There were plenty of questions about Michigan State’s offense after their first few games, and Appling’s improved play at the point has spurred them to become significantly more effective on that end of the floor. Many of his efficiency numbers are among the best in the league, and considering his age, he’s only going to get better as the season rolls along.
9. John Shurna, Northwestern
Regardless of whether you think the Wildcats will be able to make the tournament for the first time ever (which I don’t), you can’t really leave the conference’s leading scorer off of this list. Shurna is scoring 18.7 points per game while also grabbing 6.1 boards and blocking 1.7 shots per game.
Despite an unorthodox shooting motion, Shurna is hitting over 42 percent from beyond the arc and shoots over 83 percent from the line, although he could stand to get there more often. For a team that is limited defensively, the Wildcats are forced to rely heavily on Shurna and Drew Crawford to post big offensive numbers every night. He’s played at least 35 minutes in all but three games and has scored at least 15 points in all but four contests with six 20-point efforts and two 30-plus point outbursts.
If Northwestern somehow finds a way to go dancing in March, you can be certain that Shurna will be the main reason why, which gives him the opportunity to climb this list as the season moves forward.
10. Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin
I know Taylor and the Badgers have struggled this season, and my first pass at this list didn’t even have him on it. Sure, his numbers are down from last season, but I would argue that has more to do with how much Wisconsin misses guys like Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil.
In the end, Taylor’s value to the team is probably second only to Tim Frazier’s, because while some of his teammates have played at times, none of them have been a reliable Robin to Taylor’s Batman. Even so, his assist rate is just slightly lower than last season, and his turnover rate has remained outstanding for someone with the ball in his hands so much. His two-point shooting is virtually even with last year, but his three-point shooting has dropped with fewer wide open looks than he saw as a junior.
In many ways, the Badgers are playing as poorly as I can recall in recent years, but I’m not convinced that is an indictment of Jordan Taylor. What I do know is that they wouldn’t have even been competitive against teams like North Carolina or Michigan State without him.
It’s worth noting that I am writing this the day after Illinois’ Brandon Paul went off for 43 points against Ohio State, so you may be surprised to not see his name on this list. It was a phenomenal performance – one of the best so far this season – but his play earlier in the season doesn’t exactly warrant his inclusion. He was scoring but had posted some pretty ugly efficiency numbers in the process with just a 91.7 offensive rating heading into that game.