No other league can match the Big Ten when it comes to competition from the league’s best to its last-place teams.
For the first time since 1994, every Big Ten team won at least four league games. Every Big Ten team beat a ranked opponent, and seven Big Ten teams won at least three games against ranked competition.
The Big Ten ranks first among college basketball conferences in both RPI and strength of schedule, two of the primary factors in determining NCAA tournament selections. Six teams appear as virtual locks for an NCAA tournament spot — Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue — while a Big Ten Tournament win or two could lock up Northwestern’s first NCAA bid.
While the league’s prowess produced many talented players, filling out an all-league ballot is difficult in any sport because you are comparing people. Some of which you see in person 27 times, others once or twice. Statistics are important, but they fail to show good passes, appropriate screens or denying the ball to a top scorer. Leadership is an intangible quality often measured best by the final score and teammates’ performances.
Here’s my ballot for the 2011-12 all-Big Ten team:
PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Draymond Green, Sr., Michigan State. Green is the perfect player for Tom Izzo. He’s tough, physical, talented and most importantly, a leader. The senior forward scored more than 16 points a game and was the only Big Ten player to average more than 10 rebounds a night. He also was the only non-guard to rank among the league’s top 10 in assists. All of those statistics make him the league’s top player.
But what sets him apart is his ability to put the team first. After a leg injury in a loss to Illinois, Green was questionable to play against in-state rival Michigan. Green fought through the pain, played 38 minutes, scored 14 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and dished four assists in a 10-point Spartan win.
Jared Sullinger, So., Ohio State. Maybe he hasn’t had the year many expected, but he’s still one of the two best players in the Big Ten. He’s third in scoring at 17 points per game, second in rebounding at 9.3 and one of the nation’s best passing big men. In a two-point win against Northwestern last week, Sullinger outrebounded the Wildcats by himself, 18 to 17.
Cody Zeller, Fr., Indiana. The Hoosiers returned 93 percent of their scoring from last year’s team that lost 20 games. With Zeller, Indiana has won more than 20 and is the Big Ten’s highest-scoring team. Before Sunday among Big Ten players Zeller ranked eighth in scoring, sixth in rebounding, first in field-goal percentage, sixth in blocked shots and 10th in steals. Not bad for a freshman.
Tim Frazier, Jr., Penn State. Frazier is the league’s best all-around point guard despite playing for a last-place team. He averages nearly 20 points, second-most in the Big Ten. He was second in steals (2.2) and easily led the league in assists with 6.3. He also led the Nittany Lions in rebounds. The fewest points he scored in a Big Ten game was 11.
Matt Gatens, Sr., Iowa. Gatens’ scoring surge in recent weeks elevated his profile nationally, but Big Ten coaches already knew what he could bring to the court. Not only is he a prolific scorer at 15.7 points a game, but he hits nearly 43 percent of his 3-point attempts. Against Indiana and Wisconsin he hit 12 consecutive 3-pointers and elevated the Hawkeyes to upsets over both ranked teams. Even more valuable is his defense. Gatens often is asked to defend the opponent’s top scorer and still contribute on the offensive end.
John Shurna, Sr., Northwestern. Shurna led the Big Ten in scoring this year and is the Wildcats’ all-time scoring leader. Shurna averages five rebounds and was second in blocked shots.
Robbie Hummel, Sr., Purdue. Hummel has returned to form after two ACL injuries robbed him of the 2010 NCAA tournament and 2010-11 season. Before Sunday’s finale against Indiana, Hummel has scored at least 17 points in Purdue’s six previous games. The Boilermakers won five.
Trey Burke, Fr., Michigan. Burke stepped in for NBA draft pick Darius Morris and made the Wolverines perhaps more efficient on offense. Burke averages 14.5 points and nearly 5 assists a game and is a big-time playmaker.
Keith Appling, So., Michigan State. Appling successfully moved to the point guard this year and posted good numbers as a scorer, defender and distributor. Perhaps more telling is that he’s a solid, dependable player, and the Spartans’ results are apparent by his development.
Aaron Craft, So., Ohio State. Craft’s job isn’t necessarily to score but to involve others. Craft was one of the Big Ten’s top three in assists and led the league in steals. He’s widely regarded as the Big Ten’s best on-ball defender.
Jordan Taylor, Sr., Wisconsin. Taylor wasn’t quite as efficient this season as his dynamic 2010-11 season but still scored 14.6 points and 4.2 assists a game.
Meyers Leonard, So., Illinois. Leonard led the league in blocked shots and averaged more than 13 points.
Drew Crawford, Jr., Northwestern. He averaged 16.4 points and 4.6 rebounds.
Tim Hardaway, So., Michigan. Still a big-time scoring threat at 14.5 points a game.
William Buford, Sr., Ohio State. Statistically he was a little inconsistent from game-to-game but still averages nearly 15 points.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Tom Izzo, Michigan State. After a subpar 2010-11 season that produced only 18 wins and a first-round NCAA tournament exit, Izzo blended newcomers with his hard-nosed attitude and won another Big Ten title. The Spartans are more tough than talented, although they have enough juice to reach the zenith. It’s a credit to Izzo that you never, ever can count out Michigan State basketball.
Runner-up: Fran McCaffery, Iowa. After Iowa languished through four consecutive losing seasons, McCaffery brought Iowa back to a competitive level based in part through sheer will. Iowa shook off tough losses and knocked off four top-25 opponents in league play. The Big Ten’s sleeping giant now is awake and good times are on their way back in Iowa City.
Second runner-up: Tom Crean, Indiana. In his fourth season, Crean guided the Hoosiers back to relevance. Indiana lost 20 games last season and won more than 20 this year. Indiana beat Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State at home, and all are national title contenders.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Zeller (See above)
Runner-up: Burke (See above)
Second runner-up: Aaron White, Iowa. White didn’t start until game 22, but he finished with 10.4 points and a team-high 5.4 rebounds a game. He was versatile with more than 20 blocks, steals and assists this year.