The Big Ten’s top four players will rank among the nation’s top 10 at the end of the season.
Michigan guard Trey Burke, Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas, Indiana center Cody Zeller and Indiana guard/forward Victor Oladipo all are competitive for first-team All-American honors. All four are almost assured of landing on the top two squads.
So it was easy to plug in all four as first-team all-Big Ten. But that’s where the easy selections ended. The remaining picks were difficult and time-consuming. What about the other first-teamer? What about the fine line between the second and third team or, even more difficult, the difference between No. 15 (third team) and No. 16 (not selected)? The selection process was long and challenging but it should be as one of 24 voters with this responsibility.
Here are my selections for Big Ten honors, which will be announced at 6 tonight on BTN.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Trey Burke, guard, so., Michigan. I didn’t submit my vote until late Sunday afternoon because I struggled to decide between the nation’s best point guard (Burke) and the nation’s best all-around player (Indiana’s Victor Oladipo). But as great as Oladipo is, Burke was the league’s primary difference maker on offense. In league games only, Burke was the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20.2 points per game. He also led the league in assists with 6.4, nearly two assists more than runner-up Ronnie Johnson of Purdue. Burke dictated the tempo of every single game this year in the nation’s best league.
OTHER FIRST TEAMERS
Victor Oladipo, guard/forward, sr., Indiana. He finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds in a 72-71 win against Michigan on Sunday to help the Hoosiers earn their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years. In league play he was 12th in scoring, eighth in rebounding, led the league in field-goal percentage, second in steals and seventh in free-throw percentage. Just an amazing year and the transitional player in Indiana’s turnaround.
Cody Zeller, center, so., Indiana. He was the focal point for every opponent and all he did was finish third in scoring, second in rebounding, fifth in field-goal percentage, sixth in blocked shots and 10th in free-throw percentage. He answered any toughness questions with 25 points and 10 rebounds in Sunday’s win against Michigan.
Deshaun Thomas, forward, jr., Ohio State. Thomas scored only eight fewer points than Burke in Big Ten play to finish second overall. He averaged 5.6 rebounds a game and puts up nearly two 3-pointers a game. He’s the best inside-outside scorer in the league and presents an offensive mismatch every time he’s on the court.
Trevor Mbakwe, center, sr., Minnesota. I went round and round with the last selection between Mbakwe and Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. They play two different positions and put up about the same number of points. But Mbakwe averages 9.8 rebounds a game, nearly two more than any other player in the league. He also was third in field-goal percentage. It was close, but I like Mbakwe just a little more.
Aaron Craft, guard, jr., Ohio State. As I mentioned, it was a difficult choice between Mbakwe and Craft, the best on-ball defender in the league. Craft finished first in steals, third in assists and put up 10.2 points a game as a second or third scoring option.
Tim Hardaway Jr., guard, jr., Michigan. Hardaway formed a deadly guard tandem with Burke. At times it looked like the pair played two on five. Hardaway scored 14.1 points a game and made 40 percent of his 3-pointers in Big Ten play. When he’s on a hot streak, he’s as tough to defend as any player in the league.
Adreian Payne, jr., forward, Michigan State. You could see this coming for two years. Payne elevated his play from tough player in spots to tough player on every possession. He finished fourth in rebounding, fourth in field-goal percentage, averaged 11.2 points a game and was 14th in free-throw percentage.
Gary Harris, fr., guard, Michigan State. He entered the league with accolades and finished the season maybe better than expected. He scored 13.7 points, which makes him like a lot of guys. But he knocked down 46.9 percent of his shots and was even better from 3-point range (47.2 percent) as the focal point for every opponent. He also finished fourth in steals.
Devyn Marble, jr., guard, Iowa. There were four players I considered for this spot and all have similar credentials. But the Hawkeyes finished 6-2 down the stretch, and Marble was the primary reason. He averaged nearly 18 points over that eight-game span and included point guard duties because of injury. He tied for second in free-throw percentage.
D.J. Newbill, so., guard, Penn State. Newbill was a do-it-all scorer for the last-place Nittany Lions. He was fifth in points and fourth in assists in Big Ten play. No team will make a bigger jump next year than Penn State, and Newbill is one reason why.
Brandon Paul, sr., guard, Illinois. A streaky scorer, Paul averaged 14.4 points a game and like Hardaway, he was as feared as much for what he was capable of doing as what he actually did.
Keith Appling, jr., guard, Michigan State. Appling has made the transition from off-guard to tough-as-nails point guard and leader at Michigan State. He can score (12.5 ppg) and dish (3.4 apg) and was top 10 in steals and assist-to-turnover ratio.
D.J. Richardson, sr., guard, Illinois. He averaged 14.2 points, finished third in 3-pointers made per game and tied Marble for second in free-throw percentage. An all-around scoring threat.
Aaron White, so., forward, Iowa. While a first blush this might seem provincial, consider he’s one of only three Big Ten players to average at least 13 points and 5.9 rebounds a game in league play. He was in the top 15 in scoring, rebounds and field-goal percentage and scored 15 points or more eight times in Big Ten action.
A.J. Hammons, fr., center, Purdue; Jared Berggren, sr., center, Wisconsin; Dre Hollins, so., guard, Minnesota; Dylan Talley, sr., guard, Nebraska; Sam Dekker, fr., forward, Wisconsin.
COACH OF THE YEAR
1. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin. The easiest choice of the group. Ryan has finished in the top four in every one of his 12 seasons, and this might be the most impressive of the bunch. Wisconsin lost its point guard in training camp, moved over untested Tre Jackson and didn’t miss a beat by the league season. As you can see, I didn’t think the Badgers had a top-15 player, yet Wisconsin beat champion Indiana on the road, split with Ohio State and Iowa, and knocked off Michigan in overtime. I think Ryan should be the national coach of the year and this is one of the great coaching jobs in league history.
2. Matt Painter, Purdue. With a depleted roster filled with inexperience and previous journeyman players, Painter shook off a rough preseason to compete just about every night in the league. The biggest mark for a college coach is what can they do in a second cycle. Painter showed he’s well on his way toward a 2.0 with the Boilermakers.
3. John Groce, Illinois. It was a struggle picking between Groce and Indiana’s Tom Crean. I went with Groce because in his first season at Illinois, he started strong, slumped early in Big Ten play, then turned it up with a 6-1 stretch through late February and early March. The Illini beat the nation’s top team (Gonzaga) on the road, and another No. 1 (Indiana) at home.
The usual pick is Crean, who led the Hoosiers to their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years. If this was a culmination over the last four years, I’d definitely go with Crean. Also, Nebraska’s Tim Miles and Penn State’s Pat Chambers should be commended for how their teams played late in the season. Neither was an easy out.
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
1. Gary Harris, Michigan State. He’s the league’s next great shooting guard and is the top scorer on a team with scorers. A future NBA player.
2. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin. He will cause every Big Ten team headaches for the next three seasons because he can play inside or outside. In a side conversation with an Iowa assistant the night Iowa played at Wisconsin, I mentioned that I thought Dekker was going to end up beating the Hawkeyes with a late shot one of these years. Later that night Dekker drilled a 3-pointer in double overtime to give the Badgers the last lead in a four-point win.
3. A.J. Hammons, Purdue. He’s going to be a handful in the post for the next year or two or three. He’s a wide 7-footer who led the Big Ten in blocked shots. He finished in the top 20 in scoring, top 10 in rebounding and eighth in field-goal percentage.